Georgian Captain Jaba Kankava’s New Chapter at Historic French Club Reims

It was with a heavy heart that Jaba Kankava, captain of Georgia, left Ukrainian club Dnipro after eight years to join French Ligue 1 side Reims on a three-year contract last week.

Kankava had helped Dnipro to the final of last season’s UEFA Europa League, where they lost 3-2 in a thrilling Warsaw final to Sevilla, but despite on-field success the club face severe problems off it. Reports in Ukrainian media claimed that Dnipro’s players had not been paid for several months with some key players already leaving the side this summer for pastures new.

Yevhen Konoplyanka moved to Sevilla for whom he scored on his competitive debut last week in Tbilisi in the incredible Super Cup loss to Barcelona, meanwhile Croatian striker Nikola Kalinic departed for Italian side Fiorentina last week as Dnipro’s storied Europa League final side began to dismantle.

Kankava’s bullish and tenacious style made him popular with the Dnipro fans, particularly toward the end of his time in Ukraine. However, at 29 years of age and the aforementioned salary troubles at the Ukrainian side, the lure and security of a three-year contract in one of Europe’s strongest leagues was too attractive to resist.

While Stade de Reims may not be a well-known name among younger fans in Europe today, the French club was once a European force.

From 1948 to 1962, Reims won an impressive six French titles and two French Cups. During that golden age for the Champagne-Ardenne side, Reims competed twice in the European Cup final, one of those being the inaugural competition in 1956.

In front of nearly 40,000 people at the Parc des Princes in Paris, Reims were 2-0 up within ten minutes against Real Madrid only for the Spaniards, spearheaded by Argentinian legend Alfredo di Stefano, to emerge as 4-3 victors.

A re-match followed in 1959 with Real winning 2-0 in Stuttgart, and di Stefano again the tormentor.

Reims were also home to World Cup phenomenon Just Fontaine, the French striker whose haul of 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden remains a record to this day.

Decades of dwindling unimpressively between French football’s first and second tiers followed, with Reims eventually encountering financial difficulties in the early 1990s that would force its reformation, starting from the amateur leagues.

Years of struggle finally concluded in 2012 when Reims gained promotion back to France’s top league, Ligue 1, after a 33-year exile.

Returning the club to its glory days would be nothing short of a miracle in the current football climate where Paris Saint-Germain and their Arab backers can lure the like of Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the French capital.

Marseille, Lyon and Lille are also equipped with expensive players as Reims’ modest aim is to survive in the division, something they managed last season relatively comfortably, finishing 15th in a 20-team league where the bottom three sides are relegated.

Nevertheless, Kankava arrives with his new club excelling in the new season, having won both of their opening fixtures against relative glamor sides Bordeaux and Marseille.

This begs the question, will Kankava find a place in the starting eleven?

The grand welcome he was given during last weekend’s victory over Marseille and the fact Reims parted 1.5 million euros for his services, combined with being given the number 4 shirt, all suggest that Kankava will be a mainstay in the Reims side but he may need to be patient before making the initial breakthrough.

He certainly won’t be short of Georgian sporting colleagues in France with a vast number of Georgia’s national rugby team based there, while national teammate Tornike Okriashvili is just a short trip over the border in Belgium at Racing Genk.

As the French newspaper articles confirm, Kankava is best known in Europe not for his admired footballing talents, but rather an incident where he saved the life of an opponent.

In 2014, Dynamo Kyiv’s Oleh Husyev collided with a player, swallowing his tongue in the process. Airways blocked, the Kyiv man’s life was in danger but Kankava reacted bravely to administer the necessary help. His actions earned him plaudits across the continent and was even awarded the Ukrainian order of merit.

Kankava will hope to make his Reims debut this weekend at Nantes, but soon his attentions will switch to international football as he returns to the Georgian squad following the suspension that never was.

In June, Georgia played Poland in Warsaw in a Euro 2016 qualifier for which head coach Kakha Tskhadadze was wrongly informed that Kankava was suspended for the match. The Georgian administrators had been undone by a change in UEFA’s rules whereby a player was to be banned after collecting three yellow cards, not two.

Georgia face Scotland on September 4 in Tbilisi before travelling to Dublin to face Ireland three days later.

Though Georgia’s hopes of reaching Euro 2016 have long vanished, the Scots and Irish will have to carefully navigate their way past a Georgian side with nothing to lose, and a captain relishing a new life at one of Europe’s forgotten historic clubs.

Alastair Watt

20 August 2015 20:01