How Georgia v Latvia last night became about homophobia vs tolerance10 September 2018

GuramKashiahasbecomeasymbolforLGBTequalityinhisnativeGeorgiaandaroundtheworldbuthisopenandvocalsupporthasnotbeenacceptedbyall.

Last night’s game between Georgia and Latvia was the first opportunity to gage reaction to Kashia, the national team captain, since he became the inaugural winner of the UEFA #EqualGame award – an award bestowed for his vocal and powerful support for LGBT equality.

And events off the field soon transformed the game into a symbolic battle between homophobia and tolerant attitudes, showing both how far Georgia has come – thanks to the largest display of LGBT solidarity action witnessed at any sporting occasion in Eastern Europe – and, through the anti-LGBT and homophobic protests of a section of far-right supporters, how far Georgia still has to go to embrace diversity.

Before the game, Kashia’s first at home for Georgia since the #EqualGame award, reports emerged of protests planned by a far-right group ‘Georgian March’.

Threats were made against Kashia, along with demands to ‘apologise’ for his support for LGBT rights. The protesters carried anti-LGBT banners and threatened to disrupt the game. “Our people in all sections” was their divisive call to action.

The fears were that these activists would be allowed to spread their message throughout the match. As it turned two leaders of the protest were detained by police, with questions being asked of others. Faced with this unprecedented defence of minority rights, their planned protests soon dried out.

What transpired next though should provide inspiration to the people of Georgia and everyone who believes in football’s ability to drive social change.

Rather than ugly protests from the far-right being the story of the night, the actions of the large numbers of local activists that gathered to support Kashia emerged as those that will be remembered.

Draped in rainbow flags, carrying banners and wearing rainbow armbands with ‘captain’ inscribed on them around 300 people vocally showed their support for the team and LGBT equality, outnumbering and drowning out the noise from the far-right inside the stadium.

Dozens of rainbow symbols were seen inside the stadium, despite police confiscating many at the entrance to the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena where the game was played.

A rainbow flag was confiscated inside the stadium at the end of the match, but with hundreds of fans openly displaying flags, banners and armbands a clear message had been sent – one of openness and tolerance and hope.

The result is a huge victory for minority rights in Georgia.

Guram Kashia will no doubt continue to be subject to ugly abuse and criticism from conservatives in Georgia, whose position of extreme hostility to LGBT rights has made them perceive the 31-year-old as a target, but last night’s game has shown there are many more who support tolerance, diversity and equality for all.