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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgia Holds Russia's Soccer Ticket

Much will be at stake when Russia plays Georgia in its final European Championship soccer qualifier at Lokomotiv Stadium on Saturday.

One victory and a little bit of luck will see Russia into the Euro 2004 Finals in Portugal, while failure would mean four more years of hurt for a national team trying to get over the shame of back-to-back losses to Albania and Georgia earlier this year.

Also looking to score will be scalpers, hawking tickets for five times the original price, and politicians on the campaign election trail, lining up to bask in the hoped-for glory of a Russian victory.

If Russia beats Georgia and Switzerland fails to beat Ireland on the same day, Russia will qualify automatically as group winners. If Russia draws, it will at least get into the playoffs.

Yet less than two months ago, the Russian soccer team, having lost to such "giants" of European soccer as Albania, Georgia and Israel, were about as popular as Arnold Schwarzenegger at a sexual harassment prevention conference.

Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky led the lynching party at the time. "No other country has shamed themselves on the football field like Russia," he wrote in the LDPR newspaper. "[Losing to] Georgia, Albania -- try and find her on the map -- and God knows who else."

Playing on the fact that Russia lost to countries that most soccer fans would consider karliki, or dwarves, meaning weak soccer nations, Zhirinovsky fumed that all national team coach Valery Gazzayev needed to do next was to lose to a team of pygmies.

Russia started its Euro 2004 campaign well, beating Ireland 4-2 and Albania 4-1. Then the team slumped badly, losing 3-1 in Tirana and 1-0 in Tbilisi. A 2-1 defeat against Israel in a friendly in August spelled the end for Gazzayev.

But in the six weeks that new coach Georgy Yartsev has been in charge, commentators agree he has pumped confidence back into fans and the team. After a solid 1-1 draw in Dublin against Ireland, the new Russian team thrashed Switzerland 4-1 last month with Dynamo striker Dmitry Bulykin scoring a hat trick.

Even though Bulykin hasn't scored a goal since, optimism is high that Russia can continue its resurgence.

"The last game gave people hope that we can make it to Portugal," said Vladimir Radionov, general director of the Russian Football Union. "It created enormous interest."

Fans came to blows in a near-riot at Lokomotiv Stadium earlier this week, as they scrambled to buy tickets. By midweek, all 30,000 tickets had sold out and scalpers were offering 150-ruble ($5) tickets for 1,000 rubles, and 800-ruble tickets for 3,000.

Politicians in full-on election mode have also been quick to jump on the soccer bandwagon.

The game against Switzerland was noticeable for the way television focused on Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu cheering after Russia scored and a post-match Yartsev interview alongside another United Russia backer, State Sports Committee chief Vyacheslav Fetisov.

One political party has even bought 250 tickets for the game, Sport Express reported.

Adding to the tension Saturday will be the fact that the game is a local derby. Such encounters between Russia and other ex-Soviet teams often turn into grudge matches, as the visitors to Moscow are often more inspired than usual.

Four years ago, Russia played another team from the former Soviet Union in its last qualifying game for the European Championship, drawing 1-1 with Ukraine and traumatically missing out on a chance of reaching the finals.

In any case, Georgian soccer is not to be taken lightly. In bygone times it was highly respected, providing the Soviet Union with a number of national team players, while Dynamo Tbilisi was one of Europe's leading clubs.

Post-independence, the Georgian team has generally underachieved, despite still producing a number of stars such as AC Milan's Kakha Kaladze and Glasgow Rangers' Shota Arveladze.

In the mix before the first game in Georgia last fall were tense relations between the two countries at the time over the issue of Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge. That game ended farcically, when an electricity failure caused the game to be abandoned at halftime. Georgians later protested United Energy Systems' purchase of the Tbilisi electricity network, a move unconnected with the mid-game power outage.

Much to Russia's chagrin, the game was rescheduled for spring, not long after the start of the Russian season. This time Georgia celebrated a 1-0 win, described as one of the few occasions of public rejoicing in Georgia over the last decade.

Interest in Saturday's game from the Georgian expatriate community in Moscow is high, according to a spokesman at the Georgian embassy. He said that he, along with many of the 50,000-plus Georgians in Moscow, will be at the match.

Part of the appeal is a return to Soviet days, when a match between Spartak and Dynamo Tbilisi was often in effect the equivalent of Saturday's match, Russia versus Georgia

"They still remember players like Lev Yashin," the Georgian official said. "It's nostalgia, and this game is like a rebranding with new players."

Malkhaz Asatiani, who scored the winner in Tbilisi this April, was keen to repeat the feat on foreign turf. "Although we haven't any chance to reach the European Championship, there is the desire to beat our famous opponents for the second time," he was quoted as saying in Sport Express.

While fans will be nervously watching the match at Lokomotiv, as much attention will be paid to Geneva, where Switzerland hosts the Republic of Ireland. The Group 10 leader, with 12 points, all Switzerland needs is a win to ensure its place in Portugal.

But after the Swiss' demoralizing defeat in Moscow, all Russian fans will be hoping that Ireland, in third place on 11 points, can do Russia and themselves a favor by beating the Swiss.

Russia plays Georgia at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, at Lokomotiv Stadium, metro Cherkizovskaya. The game will be shown live on Channel One.