The Unusual Travels Of… Riccardo De Vivo at Dinamo Tbilisi

Dinamo Stadium is an imposing 50,000-seater cauldron.
Dinamo Stadium is an imposing 50,000-seater cauldron.

In 1981, the world finally awoke to the power that lurked in Georgia. For years one of the dominant forces in the Soviet league, Dinamo Tbilisi finally put themselves on the footballing map, overcoming East German side Carl Zeiss Jena 2-1 in Dusseldorf to lift the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup. It would be the crowning moment in an era which saw them establish themselves firmly as the third team in the USSR. The likes of Dynamo Kyiv and Spartak Moscow would rack up the titles – Managing just three of their own – but the Georgians would finish third now fewer than 13 times in the Communist era.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Georgian Umaglesi Liga has since its levels of prestige sink along with a number of former Soviet states. In the 1990s, the sheer dominance of Dinamo meant that many dismissed the league as fixed or irrelevant – no side was able to match the flagship side’s financial power and reputation, seeing them pick up the first 10 independent titles – and only now, after two decades in which other clubs – Torpedo Kutaisi, Zestafoni, Metalurg Rustavi – have begun to emerge as more professional outfits have other nations begun to accept the land of Kinkladze, Arveladze and Kaladze as a footballing nation on the rise.

The club leading the charge is once again Dinamo. After a four-year title drought, the capital club took the 2012-13 title, and at the midway point of the current campaign sit seven point clear of nearest challengers Chikhura Sachkere. The focus for the club is no longer domestic, but international.

For Johannesburg-born De Vivo, helping the Georgian giants into the group stages of European competition would complete a remarkable career progression. After completing his UEFA A Licence in Northern Ireland, he spent two years at Grays Athletic – then plying their trade in the Ryman Northern Premier League at step eight of the English football pyramid, combining part-time work with the squad with a role at deputy headteacher at a local school.

Riccardo De Vivo played a crucial part in Grays Athletic’s promotion to the Ryman Premier in his final year in England.

But a contact made on his coaching course came good, and Riccardo secured a year-long deal working with no fewer than 10 teams at the newly-launched Dinamo academy. Working non-stop for the year with a number of age groups, De Vivo already had a one-way ticket back to England, determined to find a first team squad to work with after effectively running the Dinamo set-up.

“I wasn’t going to renew my contract, and then the manager at the time – Dusan Uhrin – left to take the job at Viktoria Plzen and took his staff with him. That’s when I got asked to work with the first team, and I took it.

“The owners have really put some money in here, the facilities are state of the art. In the past the club has relied on experienced foreign players, but they now have scouts all over Georgia looking to bring the best homegrown players to Dinamo. There are some really talented youngsters here, and we’re trying to bring them through, giving them 20, 30 minutes in the first team and then letting them play for Dinamo II in the First Division.

“At any time Dinamo probably have a squad of 25-30 in the first team, but then another 20 young players out on loan to other top division clubs. They come back here after a year or two years and are ready for the first team – it means players leaving can be replaced, and the first team players have to be on their toes and competitive.”

Even with the club now seemingly turning its back on the policy that brought the likes of former Athletic Bilbao defender Ustaritz and star striker Xisco – who played under Rafa Benitez at Valencia – to the club, Dinamo are still set to dominate the local landscape, picking up a league and cup double in 2012-13 and remaining on course to do the same again in the current season. What then, despite the title drought of recent years, has allowed Dinamo to stay on top?

Riccardo explains: “When I first arrived in Georgia, I was impressed. Tbilisi is a city on the up – there’s a real mix of the old Soviet buildings and new, more modern ones – there’s everything you need and it’s a beautiful place to be.

“But once I started to travel around the country, I became very grateful that I’m in Tbilisi. Our nearest challengers, for example, that just beat us in the Super Cup, their stadium has nothing really around it, you wouldn’t want to live there. Some cities are still feeling the effects of the recent war too, so I’m very glad I’m in Tbilisi. From what I’ve seen, there’s only one other city – Batumi on the Black Sea – that I could live in in Georgia.

“Then there’s the fact that Dinamo’s facilities and structures are so far ahead of the others, and we play in the national stadium. Add to that the reputation that Dinamo has, and it’s a lot easier ¬†for the club to attract players here.

“Other clubs have started to invest, and there’s some serious money going into some of them, and I’d like to think that in the future there will be a side to challenge Dinamo regularly, but we’re the Barcelona or Real Madrid of Georgia, and people want to come here.

Cristiano Ronaldo attends the opening of Dinamo’s new academy.

“Georgian football is also very random. Sides in the relegation zone go on a run of six good games and end up fighting for a European place, and the side that beat us in the Super Cup, we beat 5-0 in the league earlier in the season. Anyone can beat anyone. At Dinamo, if we lose a game in the cup and the league, it’s a crisis and people want to know what’s going wrong. We’re not expected to lose more than two or three games a season, so if we stay consistent we will win the league.

“The Georgian League is a bit strange – the teams play each other home and away, and then the top six and bottom split for a championship and relegation shoot-out. What we want to do is get as big a lead as possible, finish the league early so we can start to rest some of the players for Europe.”

The lure of the Champions League is as irresistible for the Tbilisi club as for any side, and Riccardo is under no illusions as to how important European football is to a club like Dinamo.

“Knowing how the club is run, any money would go straight back into the club – once you’ve been in the group stage, you don’t want to miss out the next year. Every time you’re in it makes the qualification process easier, and you build the reputation of the club which makes it easier to get the players you need.

“Compared to countries like England, Spain and Italy, where even qualifying for Europe through the league is the challenge, we know we have a fairly easy route – there’s probably a 75 per cent of us finishing in the Champions League spot.

“That’s why we want to finish the league earlier. This time some of the players only had a two week break between the two seasons, so before the Christmas break they just wanted to go home. People will have a go and say they’re professionals, but they were physically and mentally tired, and we were just trying to get them through the games without any injuries.

“Things like having to go to Bucharest [to face Steaua in the Champions League qualifiers] then play a league game two days later, and the same with Tottenham [in the Europa League play-off] don’t help, so anything we can do is a big help.”

If Dinamo fall in the qualifying rounds next time, does De Vivo see himself staying in Tbilisi for another attempt?

“At the moment I honestly don’t know, I haven’t given it any thought. I’m here until May 2015, and I’d love to be talking about the Champions League at that time. I’d need to sit down and give it some thought and then sit down with the club to talk over options, but I don’t know what the future holds at the moment.

“Dinamo does have some work to do – I’m the only qualified sports scientist at the club, for example, whereas in England you might have a head and three assistants – but we have to remember that the academy has only be open for 12 months and everyone is learning. Every day it’s open, it’s getting better, so it’s an exciting time.”

So, a someone who has made the brave decision to leave his home comforts and take up the challenge in a relatively unknown footballing landscape, what would Riccardo’s advice be to young coaches considering the same thing?

“My advice would be to go for it, you never know. Two years ago I was at Grays working part-time as a teacher, and now I’m talking about qualifying for the Champions League and Europa League.

Xisco top-scored for Dinamo in last year’s double-winning campaign.

“It’s all about experience in England, if you don’t have experience nobody will give it to you. I’ve won a league, won a cup, been with a team in Europe – and nobody can take that away from you.

“Another advantage of being with Dinamo is that when other national teams play here, they use our facilities because they’re the best. We’ve had Spain and France here, we had Cristiano Ronaldo visit the academy – and these people are just walking around and you can meet them and learn from them. There aren’t many places you can do that, but you never know.

“It is difficult with language – I can just about get by in Georgian but I wouldn’t say say I’m conversational – but English is a world language and people appreciate you trying to learn. i can communicate with the players now, and it’s only off the training ground that things get a bit trickier.

“So my advice would always be to go to these countries and see what you can do – you never know.”

One thing De Vivo does seem confident of is Dinamo’s continuing dominance of Georgia, and more general progress as a club. How long before we see the famous club back in Europe’s elite competition remains to be seen, but the chances seem to be growing by the day.

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