Georgia’s Willy Sagnol gives perfect reply to critics with run at Euro 2024

It was known long before the press conference Willy Sagnol gave after Georgia’s defeat by Turkey that the French manager did not suffer fools gladly. What was not so well known was his remarkable command of colloquial English. “Twats,” he said of those who had criticised his team selection back home (more about which later). Then he said it again, with impeccable timing, before apologising – after a fashion – for the “tone” of his answer. The smile which accompanied the apology left no doubt.

Perhaps it was to be expected from a man who had to survive – and flourished – in the environment of Bayern Munich at the height of their “FC Hollywood” era, when he was an automatic starter at right-back for the team that won one Champions League, five Bundesliga titles and four German Cups between 2001 and 2008. “I played nine years for a club where punches were regularly thrown in the dressing room,” he once said. “That didn’t prevent us from winning a lot of things.”

‘We made it’: Georgia celebrates after team’s historic Euro 2024 progression – video

Perhaps it has to do with his own trajectory too. The career Sagnol had in mind in his early teens had nothing to do with football: he dreamed of becoming a police detective. He would look the part, it must be said. His features, his haircut, his speech wouldn’t look out of place in Spiral. Commissaire Sagnol, yes. But he was just too good to be ignored, and his Saint-Étienne manager Dominique Bathenay had no hesitation about giving him his debut for Les Verts against arch-enemy Lyon when Sagnol was 18. All his youth coaches concur: if one thing set Sagnol apart, it was his absolute determination to succeed, and his unshakeable belief that he would. Not much has changed since those days, it seems.

How Sagnol ended up as Georgia’s coach after a hit-and-miss, stop-start managerial career with Bordeaux and, briefly, Bayern, where he was Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant in 2017, remains something which he himself struggles to explain. He had never set foot in the country. He had decided to turn his back on management for family reasons anyway, vowing to take a job only if it was with a national team, and if it was “a project out of the ordinary”. Then the call came.

The only link Sagnol had with Georgia was with two players of his generation: Levan Kobiashvili, the former Freiburg, Schalke and Hertha Berlin left wing-back and midfielder who collected 100 caps before being elected as president of the country’s federation in 2015, and Aleksandr Iashvili, also formerly of Freiburg, who became the Georgian FA’s vice-chair. They were offering Sagnol a job that not many others would have considered,given that the country, which had never qualified for a major tournament, was trailing Oman, Haiti and Belarus in the Fifa rankings. “It was in the middle of Covid,” he said, “but I liked what they told me, and the idea of building something for the future attracted me. That’s how I landed in a country I knew nothing of.”

Georgia’s Georges Mikautadze celebrates scoring his penalty against Portugal. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP

He has spent most of his time there since his appointment, roughly seven months out of 12 in his own estimation, criss-crossing Georgia on a shoestring (“here, each euro counts”) to watch players in Batumi and elsewhere, trying to absorb as much of the small nation’s culture as he could. This didn’t go unnoticed by local fans. Foreign managers formerly employed by the Georgian FA, such as Hector Cúper, Alain Giresse and Klaus Toppmöller, tended to fly in and fly out of the country; Sagnol would do things differently, “out of respect for the people of the [Georgian] federation, but also because I told myself that it would help us save time, and allow us to avoid failing in terms of communication”.

This proved a shrewd move, because Sagnol’s first months in the job tested the patience of his employers to the limit: they lost seven of his first nine games, six of them qualifiers for the Qatar World Cup. Their trust was rewarded, though, and a 2-0 defeat at home by Greece on 9 October 2021 was to be Georgia’s last for more than a year. And now, this. The first qualification for a major tournament. A last-16 game against Spain. No wonder Sagnol is a national hero in his adopted country.

Or is he? Not according to the “twats” who are convinced that Sagnol has been following orders from Kobiashvili, also an MP for the ruling Georgian Dream Party. This, they insinuate, is the reason why striker Budu Zivzivadze, who scored both of Georgia’s goals in their playoff against Luxembourg in March, has been ignored – save a five-minute cameo against Turkey – by his coach.

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Georges Mikautadze profile

His crime? Speaking out against a law against “agents of foreign influence” passed by parliament in May, which has triggered mass demonstrations in Tbilisi and elsewhere, and describing Russia as “an enemy state not just for Georgia, but for almost everybody”. Sagnol had an easy retort that the player preferred to “Budu”, Georges Mikautadze, who had a marvellous end of the season in Ligue 1 with Metz (11 goals in his last 12 games), was the only one of the 622 players taking part in Euro 2024 to have scored in all the games in which he had played.

The criticism will have stung, however, and it wouldn’t come as a complete surprise if, should Georgia bow out of Euro 2024 on Sunday night, Sagnol decided that his Georgian adventure had run its course, before he has time to have regrets. Whatever happens will have happened on his terms and will have been worth living. Nothing else has ever mattered to him.

The Guardian