Sweden and Georgia celebrated 10 years of the Eastern Partnership with high-level football diplomacy in Tblisi.
This year marks the anniversary of the young independent nation (1991), yet ancient country (500 BC) of Georgia. The country’s EU integration process has been ongoing since the Rose Revolution in 2003, although the 2009 establishment of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (‘EaP’) created shared ownership and responsibility between the six partnership countries and the EU. As a result, association agreements, visa-free travel and free trade areas are the cornerstones of Georgia’s current close relationship with the European Union.
These achievements are celebrated throughout the year in Brussels, Tbilisi and other Eastern Partnership countries’ capitals, although traditionally in an environment of institutional meeting rooms, with fifty shades of dark grey business attire galore.
Since the EaP was a joint Swedish-Polish initiative, the Embassy wanted to mark the anniversary in a way that would contrast brightly with other more formal celebrations, reaching out to ordinary Georgians while putting on display the excellent relations between Sweden and Georgia. And so we floated the idea of a friendly football match with the Georgians.
The Georgian authorities were approached. Former AC Milan player turned Mayor of Tbilisi, Kakha Kaladze, responded positively, as did the Georgian Foreign Minister and the Georgian Football Federation, which put a great deal of effort into making this idea a reality. The winning Swedish team from the amateur – but UEFA-founded – Brussels Euroleague was alerted and flew in for a reunion of sorts.
The event created quite a buzz and became something of a talking point in the international community. Perhaps also thanks to the Embassy’s self-ironic promotion video.
On 31 May, around 500 people gathered to watch Georgia’s National Team Veterans, including Foreign Minister Zalkaliani, the Mayor of Tbilisi and a number of ex-professionals line up against a Swedish professional-looking amateur squad at the Locomotive Stadium in Tbilisi, proudly led by team captain and Deputy Head of Mission, Eric Salmgren von Schantz.
Foreign Minister Zalkaliani and Swedish Ambassador Ulrik Tideström addressed the crowd, which included Georgia’s biggest TV channels, young Georgians and devoted Swedish fans with vuvuzelas. As polite and well-mannered guests, the Swedish team let the Georgian hosts shine with a comfortable 6-1 victory. The subsequent media reporting was graceful and focused less on the score and more on Georgia’s ongoing EU integration and Sweden as a genuine and reliable EU partner and friend.
The initiative might have been bold and to some a little peculiar, but the colourful and different character of the event resulted in outreach and coverage greater than any other promotion event the Embassy has organised for years, with reports on TV and online. Above all, it created goodwill and a stronger sense of partnership for Sweden, the Embassy and Georgia’s EU integration process – and, it mustn’t be forgotten, a night to remember.
Written by Eric Salmgren von Schantz