40th Anniversary of Dinamo Tbilisi’s Iconic Defeat Against West Ham
1981 proved to be a memorable year for Georgian (Important to note: Georgian and not Soviet, for reasons that will be clarified below) football – on 13th of May in Dusseldorf, Germany, Dinamo Tbilisi, the most successful Georgian club, won its most important major trophy – The now abolished UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. But it was another victory, claimed on 4th March in London, that we’ll be talking about here – against West Ham, one of the oldest, most well-known English clubs.
First off – the score. Winning 1:4 away was not unheard of, but very rare back in the day – you were expected to win home matches. West Ham itself was in the second division and, having all but ensured their promotion, had gone all the way to the league cup final versus Liverpool and had a star-studded team, including the world’s most expensive goalkeeper at that time, Phil Sparks, and Frank Lampard Sr. Victory against West Ham wasn’t the first shock defeat inflicted upon British teams by the precocious Georgians: 2 years previously, it was Liverpool, a bona fide worldwide great and at that time, the club with the largest trophy cabinet in England, that couldn’t believe their eyes as they were beaten by a score of 3:0 in Tbilisi. Fast forward two years and Dinamo, having been turned into a well-oiled machine that relied equally on flair and tactical awareness by head coach Nodar Akhalkatsi, lined up at the Boleyn Ground against West Ham, a club that was seemingly oblivious to the quality of the obscure opponent from the Soviet Union. Veteran Sports Correspondent Brian Homewood (Reuters, The Independent) was there that night and was gracious enough to reminisce about it with Made in Georgia Magazine.
“It was a cold, wet night. West Ham were having a very good season, having narrowly missed out on a promotion the previous season due to too much concentration on the cup tournament. They had left nothing to chance this time: they had top players and they ran away with the promotion.” – says Homewood.
“I remember we were a little bit late and the match had already started when we got there. The stadium was packed and from where we were, you couldn’t see the final third of the pitch. You couldn’t really see what was happening in the penalty area. The ground at that time was so tightly packed that the players at the corner kicks had to make space for themselves.
Why were Dinamo Tbilisi such an unknown entity, considering the fact they beat Liverpool, an even bigger club just prior to this?
This sounds awful to say this, but it was a Soviet Union team and we didn’t really know that Georgia existed. People used the words Soviet and Russian interchangeably. And generally, Soviet football was seen as being fairly rigid and not very good; the Soviet Union team hadn’t qualified for the previous World Cup in 1978. By club standard, we were expecting the same kind of rigid, regimented football. Certainly not the flair Dinamo displayed, with many people saying afterwards that it looked and felt like a South American team.
So there was no awareness whatsoever that who they were playing against was basically a Georgian national team?
Exactly, nothing like that. They thought that they were playing against a Russian team. Interestingly enough, the West Ham program sheet did have some information about Dinamo, and it and it did say that they were a flamboyant team that liked to play attacking football.
At what point did the spectators or maybe the team themselves, themselves realise that they may have bitten off more than they could chew?
Well, the first goal by the great Alexander Chivadze was a shock. Because of the way it was scored – In those days, a marauding centre back who’d cross half a pitch to get into shooting distance was a very, very rare sight. He crowned it with a magnificent volley as well, a smashing effort. People could not believe their eyes. The second goal essentially happened in the aftermath of the shock caused by the first. Yet despite that, West Ham managed to score one to halve the deficit and at that point, I believe, there were still some who believed a draw could still be possible if they pressed on. No such luck – Tbilisi were absolutely brutal on the break and as West Ham pressed on, two lightning quick counter attacks resulted in two more goals from Ramaz Shengelia. That still doesn’t paint the whole picture as they had even more chances. It was like a pinball machine. I think it was at the time of the third goal that everyone realised they were going to lose. In the end, I think people were relieved it was only 4:1. I think it could have been a lot worse.
If you could compare the style of playing to modern teams, who would you see the closest resemblance to?
It was such a long time ago that it’s really tough to say. I think it was a different style of football, they didn’t play like they do in modern teams. It was the same with the Brazilian team in 1982. Fantastic team, but there’s no team nowadays that plays like that.
When the match was over, how big of a deal was this defeat for the British, for the country itself?
That’s a good question. I remember the crowds, football fans were hurling insults at players and were shouting things like “commies” at the start. But that was just typical football fan behavior. At the end though, there was a lengthy ovation, which was extremely uncommon for British football grounds and still is. The papers were full of praise for Dinamo as well – I think the sheer quality of the game played by Tbilisi won everyone over. There was no shame in defeat against such a superb team.”
This iconic match took place some 40 years ago, in 1981. As mentioned, Dinamo Tbilisi went all the way to claim the Cup Winners’ Cup. As for English clubs and fans alike, it would take 15 years and a certain diminutive Georgian in Manchester to put Georgia back on the radar again. But that story – a story of a boy called George who would be dubbed King – is a story for another day.
Interview by Vazha Tavberidze