How a rainbow-colored armband led to a soccer riot
SAN JOSE — A year ago, soccer player Guram Kashia lied in bed filled with fear and anxiety while facing social media threats, denouncements, political commentary and protests from a small pocket of people in the Republic of Georgia.
Why had the gesture of wearing a rainbow-colored armband to support gay rights caused such rancor in his native land?
“I never expected having a captain band on the arm could bring so much hate and aggression,” said Kashia, a veteran defender who signed with the Earthquakes this summer.
Now the fallout has led Europe’s soccer governing body UEFA to honor the central defender with its inaugural #EqualGame award. Kashia will be recognized tonight during the Earthquakes’ home game against FC Dallas because he can’t attend the official ceremony the next day in Monaco.
His actions add to the Bay Area’s extensive history of socially minded athletes taking unpopular stands: San Jose State sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the medal podium 50 years ago at the Mexico City Games; former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited an NFL controversy by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem two years ago and the NBA champion Warriors feuded with President Donald Trump for refusing to visit the White House to celebrate their title.
“Sometimes as a professional athlete you have such a big voice,” Kashia said. “You can step up for certain people to become better as a culture and to give new values and vision. Some people stay away from it. I never shy away from my opinions.”
But Kashia, 31, didn’t consider his action to be political when joining fellow captains of Holland’s top league by wearing the pride armband in October to support a Dutch Football Union’s campaign to promote diversity.
Then came the maelstrom for the then-Vitesse Arnhem captain.
Kashia, married with a daughter, received condemnation in a conservative country situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It started with nasty social media threats as well as a week’s worth of commentary in Georgian media.
Dozens in a far-right group protested outside of the Georgian Football Federation headquarters, shouting anti-gay slogans and burning a rainbow flag. Authorities arrested eight protestors who had demanded that soccer officials expel Kashia from the national team. A Georgian Orthodox Church group marched in another protest.
Later, some 200 people make a ruckus for about 20 minutes at the Georgia-Belarus game Nov. 13.
“They were there to yell some bad words — F-words,” Kashia said. “They didn’t understand and they don’t understand. I hope one day the next generation will understand.”
The scathing criticism stung and overwhelmed the player who became captain of the Georgian national team in June.
But he doesn’t regret wearing the armband because of his beliefs in human rights. Kashia dismissed claims that he was coerced into making a public display.
The action wasn’t so much about supporting a certain lifestyle as freedom of human beings.
“I believe in the equality of human beings,” said Kashia, who speaks Georgian, Russian, English and understands Dutch. “I don’t judge people who they are. It’s my vision toward life. It’s almost impossible to change my mind because you have judgemental opinions about me.”
Most Georgians accepted Kashia’s stance. President Giorgi Margvelashvili sent him a supportive letter. Celebrities and national team members publicly praised the defender. The outpouring humbled him.
Kashia also has found something positive in the experience: the controversy has encouraged conversations about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community in a country that according to reports isn’t accepting of homosexuality.
“Even though his actions sparked threats and abuse from many groups, he preached tolerance and acceptance, and helped change perceptions of this minority group in his native country,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said in announcing the award.
The recognition also has been a rare celebratory moment for Major League Soccer’s worst team this season.
Quakes teammates Francis Affolter and Jahmir Hyka stood and bowed to Kashia the other day while a photographer took photos of the Georgian after a practice.
“He’s a great player and great leader but also a guy with a big heart and good values — that’s exactly what we need,” Earthquakes coach Mikael Stahre said.
Kashia was equipped for the furor after growing up during a tumultuous time for Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people surrounded by Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Black Sea.
It succeeded from the former Soviet Union when Kashia was 4. Throughout his childhood, the country was embroiled in wars with two autonomous regions.
Kashia’s journey still surprises him considering how difficult life was for his parents and almost everyone in Georgia during the 1990s.
Sometimes Kashia has asked himself, “What are you doing here? You were a chubby boy and we could hardly afford football shoes when I was 12. Now, I can have any car I want or any shoes I want.”
Kashia followed older brother Shota Kashia into soccer, a popular sport in Georgia with rugby and basketball. He spent much of his childhood in the street playing soccer with anything that was round. A tennis ball or an orange would do if a real soccer ball wasn’t available. Their hometown of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, had rolling blackouts so kids hung out in the streets until the lights came on in the evening.
The Kashia boys became professional center backs when Guram signed with Dinamo Tbilisi at age 16 and eventually joined his brother on the first team.
While Shota, 33, has remained with Georgia teams, the 6-foot-1 Guram spent eight years in Holland before landing in San Jose with national teammate Valeri Qazaishvili.
Now his biggest concern besides helping the Earthquakes rebuild their reputation is furnishing a new South Bay apartment. Kashia recently bought a bed from an Ikea store that took three days to construct.
But now that it is ready, the player can sleep in peace.