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Georgia: Football Scandal Becomes Political

Nodar Akhalkatsi has his old job back (InterPressNews) May 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A scandal is engulfing one of Georgia's most popular and profitable sports, football, after the country's football federation changed presidents twice in one week, prompting speculation of political interference.

On May 13, the country's football federation elected a new president. But Giorgi Nemsadze had only been in the job a few hours, when he made the surprise announcement that he was stepping down.

"The elections in the Georgian Football Federation proved that changes are necessary," he said. "Becoming the president has never been my goal. We plan to convene an ad hoc meeting within the next few weeks, and a new president will be elected."

As expected, incumbent federation President Nodar Akhalkatsi, whom Nemsadze defeated on May 13, won a repeat election today.

The Georgian Football Federation did not allow new candidates to run for the post, and Nemsadze chose not to run for a second time.

"The football world made its choice today, on its 13th ad hoc session, and everything was done for the benefit of Georgian football, and for Georgia's development," Akhalkatsi told RFE/RL right after his election. "Because football is, and should be, one of the most important components for the development of a country."

Political Meddling?

Many Georgians are unlikely to share his optimistic tone. The events surrounding the election have sparked controversy in Georgia.

Many media commentators see the election and repeat election as the result of a power struggle in the ruling National Movement.

One of those holding such a view is a correspondent for the popular sports paper "Sarbieli," Koba Inasaridze, who says the events reflect a clash between two clans.

On the one side, he says, is Giga Bokeria, an influential parliamentary deputy, and his group; on the other, a group that includes another deputy, Davit Kirkitadze.

According to this view, Bokeria, together with Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava and some other political figures, were not happy with the defeat of Akhalkatsi, and demanded the annulment of the May 13 election results.

Meanwhile, the other group backed the candidacy of Nemsadze, himself a National Movement member who was elected to Tbilisi's City Council after running on a National Movement ticket.

'No Government Pressure'

But politicians have firmly dismissed the allegations of political interference.

"I exclude the option of any kind of pressure exercised on any of the candidates from the government," Bokeria told RFE/RL. "As for these versions of events -- it would be more accurate to call them rumors, or speculation -- I cannot take them seriously, because I do not know anything about it and therefore cannot say how a concrete rumor came about."

Giga Bokeria (center) has dismissed claims of political meddling (file photo) (InterPressNews)

Bokeria added that he, as a football fan, would like to see the current coach of the Georgian national team, the prominent German trainer, Klaus Toppmoeller, continue with the team. It was widely reported that Toppmoeller favored incumbent Akhalkatsi over Nemsadze.

Europe's football governing body, UEFA, has the power to suspend a country's membership if there is "significant" interference from "state authorities" in the affairs of a country's football association. According to the body's rules, such interference can be when "the free election of its executive organ is no longer ensured."

Today's repeat elections for federation president were observed by a representative of the National Associations Division of UEFA.

UEFA spokesman Thomas Giordano has declined to comment on the issue for now. He told RFE/RL on May 16 that football's governing body hoped to have more information from their representative in a few weeks' time.

It's unclear if UEFA will decide to issue a statement. What is clear, though, is that the controversy, in a deeply football-loving nation, is most likely to continue.

(RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this story)

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