No crimes were committed in Georgia on the night of 13 May 1981. Not a single one. According to police statistics, an average of 150 burglaries were reported daily in the country, but on that specific date the number was zero, although most of the houses stood empty, some even left unlocked. That was the night of unprecedented wild celebrations. 

Millions took to the streets of Tbilisi. 90,000 people came to the stadium, which was named after Vladimir Lenin in those days. The scenes were incredible and those who were lucky enough to witness them won’t ever forget them. Those memories are still cherished now, 36 years on, because football is more than just a game in Georgia. It’s a passion, a way of life. In Soviet times, it was also the most important element of national identity.

That national pride is the reason why lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup was so crucial to the Georgians. The tournament was abandoned by Uefa at the turn of the century after the Champions League killed it and robbed it of any kind of prestige, but back in 1981 it was an important trophy, especially for smaller nations. And that’s what Georgia were. At least they felt that way. They might have been part of the huge Communist empire, but local feelings had never been abandoned. 

Dinamo Tbilisi were their national team and winning a European competition meant the world to the republic. That might seem strange to a modern observer, but beating Carl Zeiss Jena that night was even more important than winning the championship title in the Soviet Supreme League in 1964 and 1978.

The winner against Jena was dramatic and breathtaking. With just three minutes remaining, the score stood at 1-1 and extra time loomed. That’s when David Kipiani strolled into midfield and waited patiently for a good opening. Vitaly Daraselia made a run and provided it. Having received a majestic pass, he outwitted his marker to enter the penalty area, and then put another defender on his knees by faking a shot with an outrageously beautiful feint. The Georgians knew that the East German keeper Hans-Ulrich Grapenthin was very tall, and so the coach Nodar Akhalkatsi instructed his players to shoot low. That’s what Daraselia did, beating the man known as Sprotte (‘The Sprat’) by putting the ball into the bottom corner. 

“It is the most important goal in Georgian football history,” Kipiani said. Only a hundred fans were allowed to travel to Düsseldorf by the Soviet authorities, but back home everyone shared the joy. Kipiani and Daraselia were hugely popular already, the former described as the team’s brain and the latter as its engine, but the trophy propelled the love towards them to another level entirely. When Dinamo players returned to Tbilisi two days later, tens of thousands flocked to the airport to greet their legends. 

That was the most joyful moment imaginable. If anyone had told the cheerful fans that the team would be left without both heroes as soon as 1982, nobody would have believed it. And yet, that was their fate. Daraselia was killed in a car crash exactly 19 months after scoring the magical goal. Kipiani chose to retire at the age of 30 even before that, and he too lost his life in a traffic accident in 2001. That is the tragedy of Georgian football and the time has come to tell their story, because they could have been remembered as the very top players of their era in the entire world had the circumstances been different.

At least that is what Georgian supporters like to believe and they are almost certainly right as far as Kipiani is concerned. Compared to Johan Cruyff, Zico and Michel Platini by those who saw him gracing the field on a weekly basis, he was one of the most brilliant playmakers the world had seen. Dato, as everyone in Georgia called him, was a unique phenomenon. People came to the stadium to watch him play, and Kipiani’s most important mission was to entertain them. For him, football was much more than sport. 

“Kipiani turned football into pure art,” the veteran Georgian journalist Tengiz Pachkoria said. “He brought joy to all the fans and everyone adored him. Dato made people happy. He was different to any other footballer – much more intelligent and much better educated.” 

In fact, Kipiani wasn’t supposed to become a footballer at all. Born in 1951 to a couple of famous doctors, David and Tsiala, he was seemingly destined to study medicine as well. Dato’s grandmother was responsible for widening his horizons. Kipiani spoke English so well that he tried to read William Shakespeare’s poems in the original in his youth. He was gifted at playing the violin and piano and was an outstanding singer too, performing songs in Georgian and English. 

A quick learner and a born philosopher, he could have excelled in very different fields. That is why his mother, a leading specialist in ophthalmology, opposed his obsession with football, which was considered unsuitable for a child of his remarkable talents. David’s father, who used to play at amateur level himself, understood his son a bit better. 

Dato admired his parents’ profession but his idol had always been Slava Metreveli, the famous Dinamo Tbilisi star who scored in the European Championship final in 1960, when the Soviets beat Yugoslavia 2-1 to win the inaugural edition of the tournament. Metreveli was a tricky winger, but Kipiani – tall and relatively slow – was unable to emulate him on the flank. To score goals like the legend, he started playing as a central striker when joining a football academy in Tbilisi at the age of 13. The fact that Dinamo won the historic Soviet title in the same year only strengthened his aspiration to become a footballer.

However, that dream was about to suffer a significant setback. Having won a youth Soviet tournament with Tbilisi School Number 35 in 1968, Kipiani joined Dinamo Tbilisi, but coaches considered him to be too fragile. When he suffered a serious knee injury while playing in his backyard, his chances of making the first team became slim to nonexistent and the family decided that he should study at university instead.

Medicine was naturally his first choice, but he broke his hand days before the entrance examinations took place and, unable to sit that exam, had to settle for chemistry. A few months later, Kipiani realised that he hated the subject and switched to law. 

Football was becoming almost irrelevant for him in those days, but Kote Makharadze, Georgia’s most famous commentator who was also a brilliant theatre actor, did his utmost to bring Kipiani back. He spotted the youngster’s outstanding potential and persuaded him not to abandon playing. “Your time will come,” he said. 12 years later, Makharadze was fully rewarded. He was the man who commentated on the Cup Winners’ Cup final from Düsseldorf.

The road there was long and eventful. After spending a season at second division Lokomotiv Tbilisi, Kipiani was invited to Dinamo Tbilisi once again. Aged 19, he immediately joined the first-team squad and the coach couldn’t miss his talent this time. It was the legendary Gavriil Kachalin, who – with Metreveli in his teams – led the Soviet Union to the historic triumph in 1960 and Dinamo Tbilisi to their title in 1964. It was a sign from above. Kachalin kickstarted Kipiani’s career as well.

It took time before the Georgian fans came to appreciate Dato’s skills, though, mainly because he himself wasn’t fully aware of them. During his first years at Dinamo, Kipiani filled numerous roles, but continued to believe that he would develop into a penalty-box predator. In a curious interview in May 1974, published in Sovetsky Sport newspaper shortly after he had scored his first goal for the national team, the young star claimed, “I am improving because I am finally playing in my natural position. I was thrown around before, playing on the right, on the left and even in midfield. I don’t mind that, and would even play in goal if needed, but I am a central striker, first and foremost.”

He was wrong, and a misfortune helped him to understand that. Shortly after that interview, Kipiani injured his knee once again during a training session and so was free to travel to western Ukraine during the summer. He did so in order to watch the World Cup on TV. It might sound incredible these days, but back in 1974 most of the games weren’t broadcast in the Soviet Union – after all, the national team had failed to qualify for the tournament. In Uzhhorod, close to the Czechoslovakian and Hungarian borders, it was possible to catch foreign channels and that’s how Kipiani saw Cruyff and the Total Football of the Netherlands. 

He immediately admired the Dutch maestro and wanted to play like him. “This is the football of the future,” he said. That is how he found his true destiny. Aleksandre Chivadze, the brilliant centre-back of the team and a close friend of Kipiani, said in retrospect, “Dato noticed that Cruyff was not only the star player, but also the coach on the pitch. That’s how he later saw himself at Dinamo.”

It is ironic, then, that Kipiani won his first trophy at Dinamo Tbilisi thanks to a goal typical of central strikers. Dato rose high and headed in a free-kick in the Soviet Cup final against Ararat Yerevan in 1976, opening the scoring in a 3-0 win. That was unusual because while Kipiani was known as a good header of the ball, he didn’t use those skills too often. When asked about it, Dato said, “The ball is heavy and it’s not healthy to head it all the time. It could damage the brain and then I wouldn’t be able to use it.” That was the answer of a man who could have been a doctor, the answer of a highly intelligent person – because nobody could use his brains on the pitch like Kipiani.

After moving into midfield, he became extremely influential. Dropping deep in order to avoid man-to-man marking, Kipiani was able to send pinpoint long balls. He dictated the tempo, deciding when to slow the game and when a quick counter-attack was needed. He wasn’t dynamic like Cruyff and could never cover the whole pitch like the Dutch genius, but there were still significant similarities between them. 

Opponents often understood that they only could stop Dato by fouling him and tackles were often very hard, but, true to his subtle nature, the maestro never retaliated. He was the ultimate football gentleman, admired for his sportsmanship as much as his phenomenal ball skills. Even when someone spat at him, he would take out a handkerchief and clean his face. Kipiani never argued with referees either. “His attitude was always exemplary. He punished those who used dirty tackles against him simply by playing well,” the former referee Vadim Zhuk said.

Some defenders were extremely tough, but other simply couldn’t bring themselves to rough up such a gentle and polite star. The Inter defender Giacinto Facchetti was robbed by Kipiani near the penalty area during the Uefa Cup clash at the San Siro in September 1977 and didn’t stop the Georgian as he ran away to score the winner. “I didn’t want to foul such a player,” the Italian legend said. Kipiani was voted the best Soviet player that year – the first Georgian to win the award.

Dinamo eventually went through after a goalless draw in the return leg in Tbilisi, but were thrashed by Grasshoppers in the third round.  Their time in Europe was still to come and the fans were about to witness some truly remarkable spectacles against the very best teams from around the continent. 

With Kipiani pulling the strings in midfield, the team was hugely successful and equally enjoyable to watch under the guidance of the Georgian coach Nodar Akhalkatsi. During that period, Dinamo Tbilisi had one of the highest average attendances in Europe, with 66,000 people coming to see home matches in the Soviet league. They were nicknamed the Georgian Brazilians and Dato was definitely not alone. Vladimir Gutsaev was an outrageously talented striker and the youthful Ramaz Shengelia flourished up front as well. Another exciting new player was Daraselia, who gradually became an extremely important – almost irreplaceable – part of the team.

Pachkoria, who spotted Daraselia as a kid when he was playing for the tiny Amirani club from his hometown of Ochamchire, describes the midfielder as a rare talent. “He broke into Dinamo Tbilisi squad like a meteor, becoming a major player within a year,” he said. “His energy was truly boundless.” Murtaz Khurtsilava, the veteran captain who represented the Soviet Union at two World Cups, was so impressed with the 18 year old’s debut in 1975 that he said in a TV interview, “If everything goes according to plan, Vitaly should develop into a major star.”

Daraselia’s self-confidence was impressive in the extreme. Back in his school days,  he had promised his future wife Marina that he would make a name for himself at Dinamo. Every day, before going to lessons, he would run on the beach, regardless of the weather. Football was his life. Unlike Kipiani, Daraselia wasn’t a brilliant student, but he didn’t really need to be. He knew what he was capable of and understood that only hard work would enable him to fulfil his potential. 

Nobody was able to cover more ground than Daraselia, but there was more to him than just running and tackling. He also possessed a very deft touch, his passing was precise and intelligent, and he always tried to play the ball forward. Box-to-box midfielders were not common in the Soviet league those days – most players were either destroyers or creators. Daraselia was everything in one stocky package, just 1.72m tall.

In 1976 he was instrumental when the Soviet team won gold at the Under-18 European Championship. At Dinamo Akhalkatsi admired his talents, but didn’t think the youngster was able to play every game; Marina remembers Vitaly’s tears and frustration each time he was left on the bench. That didn’t last too long.

By 1977, Daraselia was one of the stalwarts of the team that fought for the title. “There is no need to give him instructions, because he reads the game so well,” Akhalkatsi used to say. An unlucky 3-2 defeat at the reigning champions Torpedo Moscow with three games of the season remaining virtually put an end to that dream, but finishing as runners-up to Dynamo Kyiv was still a major achievement. Kipiani shone with 14 league goals that season and the results in Europe were also encouraging. Foundations were laid for the big triumph the following year.

Daraselia missed the first months of 1978 through injury, but his teammates started in impressive fashion. The 2-0 win over Spartak Moscow on the opening day of the seaosn, with goals from Shengelia and Kipiani, proved that the Georgians were serious title contenders. By the time the midfield tyro came back, Dinamo were leading the table. As Sovetsky Sport wrote in July after the 4-1 win over Zarya, “Daraselia is moving the ball quickly and smoothly, and the play is more coherent with him on the pitch.”

Vitaly’s name became famous throughout the Soviet Union when Dinamo Tbilisi met Napoli in the Uefa Cup first round that September. After beating the Italians 2-0 in Georgia, they were still wary ahead of the return leg and an away goal was needed. “My son will be born next month,” Daraselia said. “I will name him after the guy who scores in Naples.” Funnily enough, he found the net himself and true to his word named his first son Vitaly. 

At the same time, Tbilisi made sure of the title triumph, finishing four points ahead of Dynamo Kyiv in the final table and overcoming a strong challenge from Shakhtar Donetsk. Shengelia, who netted 15 times in the league, was voted the best Soviet player.

1979 was another brilliant year for the Georgians. They might have just missed out on the championship title, but won the Soviet Cup yet again and made huge headlines in their first ever European Cup campaign. When Tbilisi were drawn against Bob Paisley’s Liverpool in the first round, few gave them a chance, but they were remarkably good at Anfield, losing only 2-1 in the first leg. Ahead of the return fixture, the whole country went mad. More than 100,000 fans somehow packed out a stadium that could officially hold only 78,000 people. They witnessed one of the best performances ever by a Soviet team, as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Phil Thompson and their illustrious teammates were thrashed 3-0. 

Sadly for the Georgians, Kevin Keegan took revenge for his former club when Hamburg met Dinamo in the second round. Kipiani scored majestic goals in both legs, but so did the Englishman and the German champions won 6-3 on aggregate. Akhalkatsi’s team had to wait another season before lifting a European trophy.

The road to the Cup Winners’ Cup triumph will never be forgotten in Georgia. Beating Kastoria of Greece and Waterford United of Ireland was straightforward, but eviscerating Trevor Brooking’s West Ham in a 4-1 win at Upton Park in the quarterfinals most certainly wasn’t. Kipiani was imperious that day and his playmaking skills were crucial again when Feyenoord were beaten 3-0 in Tbilisi in the semifinals, although the hard-working midfielder Tengiz Sulakvelidze was the unlikely hero with a brace. Dinamo survived the Dutch comeback in Rotterdam, losing 2-0, and were through to their only ever European final.

It is a shame that the magnificent Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf was nearly empty that night. The East German government didn’t allow Carl Zeiss Jena fans to cross the border, while football lovers in West Germany were indifferent to the event. And so a game of high quality and remarkable drama was only watched on TV. Every Georgian held their breath, listening to Makharadze. They were devastated when Gerhard Hoppe put Jena in front with 27 minutes to go, but Gutsaev equalised almost immediately. And then, when extra-time seemed inevitable, Daraselia produced his moment of magic.

“I can imagine what’s going on in Tbilisi now,” Makharadze said after the final whistle. “The capital of Georgia is jubilant, as is the whole of our country.” The Communist party chiefs didn’t like what they heard and demanded that the famous commentator should go to Moscow and explains his words. Only claiming that he had meant the Soviet Union rather than Georgia when saying “our country” saved him from being fired. Political issues were extremely sensitive in the Soviet football and they had enormous influence on the national team. There is no better example of that than the bizarre coaching triumvirate chosen ahead of the 1982 World Cup.

With the Soviet team built around Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians, the government decided that each republic should have a representative on the bench. Spartak Moscow’s Konstantin Beskov was officially the head coach, but Dynamo Kyiv’s Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Dinamo Tbilisi’s Akhalkatsi were supposed to have an equal say in the decisions regarding the squad, line-ups and tactics. Their most controversial and surprising call ahead of the tournament was leaving Kipiani out of the squad. 

Few understood how such an injustice could have been possible. For years, but especially following the Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, Kipiani was universally regarded as the best playmaker in the Soviet Union. His talents were admired throughout Europe as well and he was frequently invited to play for different World XI selections, while some top clubs, including Juventus, would have been keen to sign him – but that was naturally impossible because Soviet stars were forbidden to move outside of the country. And yet his role in the national team was limited in the extreme.

The problem started as early as 1976 during the Olympic tournament in Montréal. Beskov was the coach who led the team in the qualifiers and achieved remarkable results, but Lobanovskyi replaced him ahead of the trip to Canada and took a squad based around Dynamo Kyiv players. Kipiani was the only Georgian – and eventually the only outfield player not to play a single minute, missing out on a bronze medal because of it. According to some reports, Lobanovskyi asked the star to warm up shortly before the final whistle of the last match but Kipiani, disappointed in the extreme, refused, saying, “I came here to play, not to get the medal.”

Soviet journalists criticised Lobanovskyi for his choice, especially because the team failed to win the title. “It is unclear why Kipiani, who showed good form in the league, wasn’t used,” Oleg Kucherenko wrote in Sovetsky Sport. “The coaches explained that he didn’t fit into the tactical scheme, but why was he included in the squad at all if that was the case? It seems that Kipiani could have helped the team to achieve better results.”

That remark might have influenced the decision taken six years later. Beskov and especially Lobanovskyi were not fond of Kipiani’s tendency to improvise. Fans adored him and loved watching his games because of the unpredictable moves he invented, but coaches saw that differently, especially because Kipiani was never shy of making himself heard in the dressing-room. 

Ahead of the World Cup, which was hugely important after the Soviets had missed out on the 1974 and 1978 editions, they wanted full control, and there were four Georgians in the squad already in Daraselia, Chivadze, Sulakvelidze and Shengelia. Adding the fifth member of Dinamo Tbilisi – the most talented and influential of them all – might have given Akhalkatsi the upper hand against Beskov and Lobanovskyi, which they were desperate to prevent. The Georgian coach should have fought for his playmaker, but he was either unwilling or – as he later claimed – unable to do so. 

Beskov’s official version was that Kipiani was injured. Yet he took Ukrainian midfielder Leonid Buryak who actually was unable to play and didn’t take part in the tournament. The Georgian, however, was fully fit after making a huge effort to recover from the worst foul he had suffered in his career.

It happened in September 1981 when Dinamo Tbilisi took part in the Trofeo Santiago Bernabéu and played against Real Madrid in the semi-finals. An outrageous tackle by Ángel left Kipiani with a broken leg, finishing his year. The midfielder fought back and started the 1982 season in good form, scoring twice in four matches and performing well against Standard Liège in the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals, only to discover that he had been omitted from the preliminary squad by the national team. 

The disappointment was so severe that Kipiani announced his retirement from football there and then, in May 1982, at the age of just 30. “I had two dreams – to win a European trophy and to play at the World Cup. I have accomplished the first one, but the second is out of reach because I will be too old in 1986. Therefore, there is no reason to continue playing,” he said. 

The Georgian fans were shocked and angry. Not only had their star been treated unfairly as they saw it, but he was now leaving the game for good. Players, journalists and supporters tried to change Dato’s mind, but no officials made such attempts, and he was adamant in his decision. He didn’t even get a farewell game – it was scheduled for November that year but had to be cancelled because the Communist Party chief Leonid Brezhnev died a few days prior to the event. Kipiani’s international career was over after just 19 caps.

Dato had no regrets. “My father had always said that he made the right choice to retire when he was still on top,” said Levan Kipiani, his son. “He was only sorry about not playing at the World Cup. He never understood that decision and it was a personal tragedy for him.”

Daraselia went to the World Cup, but was also not used properly. The midfield turbo was important when the Soviets came close to beating Tele Santana’s Brazil in the opening fixture before succumbing 2-1 to a late comeback led by Socrates and Eder. However, he was replaced at half-time in the second fixture against New Zealand and never returned to the starting line-up. He only made two short substitute appearances in the second round, getting 12 minutes in the goalless draw with Poland as the Soviets exited the tournament. Tragically, that turned out to be his last game for the national team.

With Kipiani out of the picture, Akhalkatsi decided to build the new-look Dinamo Tbilisi around Daraselia, giving him more playmaking responsibilities in addition to his usual box-to-box contribution. His plans were destroyed on 13 December 1982 when Daraselia drove along an icy mountain road to visit his brother Gennady who had been arrested. He lost control on a sharp curve and the car slid down into a river from a high cliff. His friend who was in the vehicle with him was found dead on the scene but it took nearly two weeks to discover Daraselia’s body. He was just 25, on his way to superstardom.

Kipiani was distraught. “I left my vacation upon hearing the news and came to look for Vitaly,” he said. “It was impossible to believe that he had been killed. The number 13 was fateful for him. We won the Cup Winners’ Cup on May 13, he wore shirt number 13 at the World Cup, he died on December 13 and we couldn’t find him for 13 days.” The Georgians wanted to bury their idol in Tbilisi, but the family decided differently and his grave is in his small Abkhazian hometown of Ochamchire, where the stadium is named after him.

Daraselia’s death combined with Dato’s retirement destroyed Dinamo Tbilisi, who had a disastrous season in 1983. Akhalkatsi was relieved of his duties and Kipiani replaced him, starting an eventful coaching career. He could never be as successful on the bench as on the field, however, and numerous spells at Dinamo and with the Georgia national team were controversial.

In 2001 there might have been a big step forward for Dato, who was about to take over at Dinamo Moscow. Fate decided differently. On September 17, just a few hours before he was supposed to fly out to Russia for negotiations, Kipiani suffered a heart attack while driving and his car hit a tree at enormous speed. Doctors couldn’t save his life. He was gone at the age of 49. 

The whole of Georgia was in a state of shock once again. People took the tragedy to their heart – literally. The number of heart attacks in the country was significantly higher than average in the following days. That makes sense because Dato was the very heart of Georgia in more ways than one. This year, his statue will be unveiled in Tbilisi, but the wound is still open. 

Even now, 35 years after the World Cup in Spain, Georgian fans are certain that the Soviet team could have won it if Kipiani and Daraselia had been given the reins in midfield. It could have been their very own – Georgian – trophy. They will never get closer and it may be a long time before Georgia play at a major tournament again. They won’t win any club competitions either, but the 1981 triumph will always be remembered. That only makes it even more significant.

It was the greatest day of Kipiani and Daraselia. It proved to be their swan song too.