From Georgia, a name to remember: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia
He’s 21 and his football skills are already prompting comparisons with Maradona. He’s likely to spark a bidding war come winter. Watch this space, says Rudraneil Sengupta, in this week’s Sporting Life.
Remember the name: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.
Attack the K with an aggressive “kh”, lightly trip on the v and stumble onto the i, tempered by a short wooee sound: Kh-vwui-cha. Then, Kh-vwa-rut-skhay-lia.
Or you could just follow the Neapolitans and call him Kvaradona.
“Maradona returns to the Maradona”, ran one recent headline in Naples, when Kvara (that’s what we will finally call him), a 21-year-old forward from the European footballing backwater of Georgia, made his debut in the Serie A for Napoli and instantly dazzled at the Maradona stadium.
The summer’s football transfer season in Europe, which ended recently, saw some spectacular signings: Erling Haaland to Manchester City, looking so ominous in blue that, after just a few games, pundits are talking about whether he’ll break all Premier League scoring records. Robert Lewandowski to Barcelona, scoring so nonchalantly that he sometimes makes it look like he’s by himself out there in the field.
But the summer transfer is done. It’s in the past. Is there a player right now who will set the European transfer market afire come winter, or, more likely, next summer? I am willing to bet that every major club in Europe will go into a frenzy trying to sign Kvara, who, until a few months ago, was with the tiny club Dinamo Batumi in the Georgian city of Batumi, by the Black Sea.
Kvara was actually signed to the Russian club Rubin Kazan, but left to join Batumi when Fifa allowed foreign players to break existing contracts with Russian clubs after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Napoli, a club under intense pressure for letting go of their most talismanic players (Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens) in the last few months, scouted him out and brought him to Naples.
On his debut, Kvara began explosively, tricking and speeding through Verona’s defence in Napoli’s opening fixture. He scored with a cannily timed run and clean header in a 5-2 win. It was his next contribution that signalled that something special was happening: receiving the ball from his defence near the centre line, Kvara played a magnificent first-time through-ball that split the opposition defence to set up his teammate Piotr Zielinski for the goal.
Kvara then thrilled the home crowd with a dazzling display of dribbling, pace, passes and shooting. He broke past his marker down the left, cut in sharply, and unleashed a curling shot that swung into the top right corner of the goal for his first. For his second, he feinted a shot with his right foot but pulled the ball back instead to lose his defenders, before slotting the ball in with his left foot.
Then came the Champions League fixture against Liverpool on September 8. Kvara was most responsible for what Jurgen Klopp has called the “worst defeat of his Liverpool career”. The young man ran an already dishevelled Liverpool defence completely ragged. He turned centre back Joe Gomez into his plaything. He did it all: turns like Johan Cruyff (if Kvara reminds me of someone, with his lean physique and floppy hair, it’s Cruyff rather than Maradona); dribbling and outpacing defenders ; and pulling the trigger like Brazil’s Ronaldo. His close control is a thing of rare beauty, and his deception skills are up there with the best in the game right now. He left Liverpool’s midfield enforcer Fabinho scything at thin air with his long legs. He forced Virgil Van Dijk into desperate goal-line saves.
I checked and found another example of Kvara almost single-handedly destroying a team much more vaunted than his own. This was during the European qualifiers last year, when Georgia, ranked 82, played Sweden, ranked 20. Kvara scored twice in that 2-0 upset of Sweden, hit the post once, sent in a cross that looked like a certain goal before it deflected off the post, and turned, dribbled, ran past and spread terror and confusion among the Swedes all over the park. All this, and he is just getting started.
Remember the name.