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Otar Kiteishvili exclusive interview: Georgia's Euro 2024 journey explained as Cristiano Ronaldo awaits in Germany

Meet Otar Kiteishvili, the Georgian midfielder compared to Lionel Messi who is ready to face Cristiano Ronaldo in Germany after achieving the dream of a generation and find out why he is convinced they can surprise with 'world-class' Khvicha Kvaratskhelia…

Georgia's Otar Kiteishvili is looking forward to the challenge facing the Euro 2024 newcomers
Image: Georgia's Otar Kiteishvili is looking forward to the challenge facing the Euro 2024 newcomers

Otar Kiteishvili will always remember the penalty shootout against Greece that secured Georgia’s place at Euro 2024. He had been substituted after 104 minutes. "It was the most nervous that I have been because I could only watch," he tells Sky Sports.

Strange things started happening to his body as he waited for team-mate after team-mate to step up, Georgia's dream of qualifying for their first ever major tournament on the line. "I was hot and then I was cold. But I always had a feeling that we would do it."

He was right. Nika Kvekveskiri squeezed his shot beyond the Greece goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos to secure a 4-2 shootout win. As the ball found the back of the net, it sparked wild scenes of celebration in Tbilisi that have already entered folklore.

Georgia's players and team members celebrate after winning a penalty shootout at the end of the Euro 2024 qualifying play-off soccer match between Georgia and Greece at the Boris Paichadze National Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Tamuna Kulumbegashvili)
Image: Celebrations in Georgia after the penalty shootout triumph against Greece

"I lost everyone," says Kiteishvili, laughing. He remembers hugging friends. He recalls seeking out his coach Willy Sagnol and then doing everything that he could to soak up every single memory of a special evening. "I walked very slowly towards the tunnel."

There was a special welcome on his return to Sturm Graz, his club in Austria, but that was nothing compared to the reception back home. He received the Order of Honour, a symbol of what this means to the country. "You do feel it. It is everything for the people."

Kiteishvili, now 28, had thought that this opportunity had passed him and his country by. "For us, for Georgian players, it looked impossible," he explains. "I don't know why but it looked like that. Especially after the defeat to North Macedonia."

He is referring to the narrow play-off defeat that Georgia suffered in failing to reach Euro 2020. They had been fancied but fell just short. "We didn't know where we could get a better chance but we did not use that first chance. We got the second chance."

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He calls it "the dream of a generation" and still seems in awe at what has happened. "Probably this is the biggest thing that I could achieve in my career." It was about one night but, strangely, it was a night that they had known was coming for almost two years.

Georgia earned their play-off spot having topped their Nations League Group but then had to go through a qualifying campaign that had more lows than highs. "Tough times," acknowledges Kiteishvili. "We lost against Spain 7-1 at home. We fell down a lot."

But there was always that alternative route. "This Nations League was our best chance and we knew that. We knew that the games would be in March 2024." Some of the squad seemed to build their entire season around peaking for that exact moment.

"Everyone had special preparations for this game. When I talked to my team-mates in the national team, they prepared especially for it. Some of them, the guys who had this last chance to qualify, they did not care much about the club results."

It is a reminder of what just being there will mean to some this summer. The journey for Georgian football has been a long one. "This was a long process. We started building step by step. There were some changes. It became a younger team and a new coach came."

Georgia head coach Willy Sagnol has taken the team to Euro 2024
Image: Georgia head coach Willy Sagnol has taken the team to Euro 2024

Sagnol, who won the Champions League as a player with Bayern Munich in 2001 and lost a World Cup final with France five years later, has had a big impact. That experience brought calm to the group when it was needed, riding the emotions but retaining focus.

"He always found the right words for us before, during and after the game. This calmness, somehow it came on us also. As a coach, you need to bring this psychological mentality to the team. That is what he did. It was the most important thing, I think.

"Right now, the most important thing is that I see us as a family. It was always a good team but now it is something else. There is a really good energy in the team. We have fun when we are together. Not only training and playing, but we like spending time together."

There is undoubted talent within the team. Giorgi Mamardashvili is Valencia's first-choice goalkeeper, while there are others playing in England, France and Spain. But there is no denying that much will depend on the performances of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.

At 23, the Napoli winger is already his country's third highest goalscorer. Kiteishvili played with him at Dinamo Tbilisi when he was just 16. "He was always special and scored some important goals that season," he recalls. "What Kvara is now is something else."

FILE - Georgia's Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, right, celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the Euro 2024 group A qualifying soccer match between Georgia and Scotland at the Boris Paichadze National Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Nov. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Tamuna Kulumbegashvili, File)
Image: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is Georgia's key player and the man teams need to stop

What Kvaratskhelia is now is one of the most gifted players at this tournament. His form has plateaued since his heroics in leading Napoli to the Serie A title last year but perhaps, like his team-mates, he has been saving his best for this summer in Germany.

"He is a world-class player right now. He makes the main difference. When he is on the pitch, we believe always that he makes something special [happen] out of nothing. He is the leader. We are happy. We are lucky, actually, that we have him in our national team."

He cannot do it alone. It will be a team effort - and Kiteishvili can help. He has long been a fan favourite in Graz, playfully compared to Messi by some of their supporters. That is not how he would describe himself but his presence in Georgia's midfield could be key.

Scotland's Scott McTominay (left) and Georgia's Otar Kiteishvili battle for the ball during the UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying Group A match at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Picture date: Tuesday June 20, 2023.
Image: Georgia's Otar Kiteishvili in action against Scotland at Hampden Park.

"I try to read the game, first of all. How the opponent is controlling the ball, how we can control it better. I work hard on and off the pitch, giving it 100 per cent. That is probably my biggest quality. I am ready to give 100 per cent for my team and my country."

He is more open to discussing another icon of the game, Cristiano Ronaldo. "He is a special player, one of the best of all time." Georgia will face Portugal in their final group game. This could be his final major tournament - and so that game could even be his last.

"I am looking forward to playing against him. When you play against top-class players, you see different things. You get a lot of experience just by watching how they communicate. I hope we can make him complain a lot and not score a goal against us!"

Georgia's Group F fixtures

Jun 18: Turkey vs Georgia, Dortmund

Jun 22: Georgia vs Czech Republic, Hamburg

Jun 26: Georgia vs Portugal, Gelsenkirchen

Before that, there are two games to play. "The first game is the most important." That will be against Turkey in front of 80,000 supporters in Dortmund. Kiteishvili hopes his wife and brothers will be among them but the message is that this summer is no vacation.

"We are not going there for holidays. We are going for the points. We need to play well, bring our best performances. The most important thing is that we have these big emotions from the game against Greece. We need to move past it and focus.

"It is a big thing what we did but we have to keep progressing. "It will be hard for us because we have never played in a tournament and that is different. But it is a great experience for all of us and we have a group where I think we can cause some surprises, hopefully."

In truth, it has been on his mind ever since those celebrations in Tbilisi. "Since that game, I have been looking forward to meeting my team-mates again and starting this European Championship. I am really happy to be part of it. We deserve to be there."

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