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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia, Russia Face Off in Soccer War

After a month of talk about Russia carrying out airstrikes on Georgia, the two countries will get the chance to attack each other for real this weekend -- on the soccer pitch.

Players and officials have spent the past week trying to play down the significance of the European Championship qualifying game between Russia and Georgia in Tbilisi on Saturday evening, but they have been unable to prevent it being turned into a political football to rival the Pankisi Gorge.

At the Commonwealth of Independent States summit earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin opened a discussion with his Georgian counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, by referring to the match.

"Soon, you know, the soccer match will take place, Eduard Amvrosiyevich," Putin was quoted by Kommersant as saying.

In response, Shevardnadze asked if Russians were interested in the game.

"You bet," Putin said.

Although Putin has since softened his stance toward the presence of Chechen rebels in northern Georgia, the heightened tension between the countries has prompted Russian politicians to call for the game to be played at a neutral venue amid concerns about the safety of Russian players and fans.

"It's impossible to allow the match to take place in the capital of Georgia," said nationalist rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky on Ekho Moskvy radio last month. "It needs to be moved to a neutral territory."

But soccer authorities did not agree with Zhirinovsky, who also predicted that Russia would win the match 5-0.

"I don't think it interferes or adds pressure [to the game]," Russia coach Valery Gazzayev said of the political tensions between the two countries at a news conference Tuesday. "Soccer is the kind of sport that unites countries and peoples. Even more so because we lived together in friendship not so long ago.

"Many of us have friends and relatives left in Georgia," he added. "I see it as a qualifying game, nothing more."

Gazzayev said he was a friend of Georgian coach Alexander Chaladze, with whom he played in the 1980 Soviet Olympic team, and he also played half a season for Dynamo Tbilisi in 1986.

"We're going to be friends," State Sports Committee head Vyacheslav Fetisov said on Russian television, adding that he expected no trouble in Tbilisi.

Katu Chikhladze, assistant to the president of the Georgian Football Federation, Merab Jordania, also tried to distance the game from political issues.

"It's got nothing to do with politics," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It's soccer. The soccer family is different from politics. It's not politicians who are playing."

Georgia's star player, Kakha Kaladze, echoed Chikhladze: "Let's leave the politics to the politicians," he was quoted by the Izvestia newspaper as saying. "I'm a soccer player."

Ironically, Kaladze, whose brother is still missing after being kidnapped in Tbilisi last year by bandits thought to be from the Pankisi Gorge, is a prime example of how Georgia's internal troubles have threatened to affect its soccer team. Kaladze originally said he would never play for Georgia again after the kidnapping but later relented.

For all the statements by players and officials that soccer and politics don't mix, however, the two have often been entwined in the past -- particularly in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

During the Cold War, Soviet soccer players were well aware of the consequences of defeat to an ideological rival.

With Josef Stalin and Yugoslav leader Tito at loggerheads in 1952, Soviet players were told to make sure they beat Yugoslavia when the two teams met at the 1952 Olympic Games. The Soviets lost 3-1 and the coach and some of the players were banned from the sport for a year on Stalin's orders. In addition, the army team, CDSA, which had a number of players in the national side, was disbanded and its previous results expunged from newspapers and the league table.

In 1973, the Soviet Union missed out on going to the 1974 World Cup after refusing to play a playoff game against Chile in the National Stadium in Santiago, where thousands of prisoners had been held after the right-wing coup earlier that year. In a different vein was a soccer match the Soviet Union played against Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1961. The Soviet Union won 2-1, a result that delighted local Soviet diplomats who said fascist sympathizers had been attacking their embassy.

"After this, not one fascist will get closer than a kilometer to our embassy," one official said to Viktor Ponedelnik, who scored both the Soviet Union's goals that day. "No delegation from the party or the government could do what you have done with your victory."

Other famous grudge matches between countries with less than perfect diplomatic relations have included the United States versus Iran, whose soccer teams have played each other a number of times without incident, and England against Argentina, whose teams have had several controversy-filled encounters since the Falkland Islands war in the early 1980s.

But the most famous example of soccer inflaming political disputes happened between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. Tensions between the two Central American neighbors were already high because of a territorial dispute when disturbances at two soccer matches between the countries led to diplomatic relations being broken and eventually to war. Up to 2,000 people were killed in the fighting.

The Georgian government is taking extra security precautions for Saturday's match, drafting in 3,000 police to patrol what is expected to be a 30,000 capacity crowd, including Shevardnadze.

The Russian ambassador to Georgia, Vladimir Gudev, said after a meeting with Georgian soccer boss Jordania that he was satisfied with the security arrangements, Interfax reported.

On the pitch, Russia, which beat Ireland 4-2 in its opening Euro 2004 qualifying match last month, is expected to beat a Georgian side that features a number of skillful players but little team spirit. Georgia slumped to a 4-1 defeat to Switzerland in its first qualifying game last month.

If, as expected, Russia does win Saturday, Georgia will have an early chance for revenge: The two countries meet again the next day in a qualifying match for next year's rugby union World Cup in Australia. "We have a better chance in rugby," Chikhladze conceded.

Georgia vs. Russia will be shown live Saturday on Channel One at 7 p.m.