Georgia need to stop Ronaldo at first Euros – and manager Willy Sagnol has already tried

Cristiano Ronaldo cries after Portugal were knocked out of the 2006 World Cup
A 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in tears after Portugal were beaten by France in the 2006 World Cup semi-final - Getty Images/Nicolas Asfouri

The opening few seconds of Fifa’s official highlights video of the 2006 World Cup semi-final between France and Portugal shows a 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo in full flight, being chased down valiantly by Les Bleus right-back Willy Sagnol.

Ronaldo was not yet at the irresistible peak of his powers, but his opponent very much was. A few months after winning the third of four doubles with Bayern Munich, Sagnol successfully shackled Portugal’s then-No 17 to help his side reach the World Cup final in Berlin.

Now at the Euros, Sagnol and Ronaldo face each other again. Eighteen years have passed but at 39, Ronaldo remains Portugal’s leading light. Sagnol, however, has an altogether different brief, as head coach of Georgia - the man who brought the nation its first European Championship qualification, no less.

“I don’t know if it makes me old or if it makes him old,” Sagnol smiles when asked about facing Ronaldo again. “In 2006, he was still very young but already had a lot of interesting qualities. I just remember a player who, every time he had the ball, wanted to create something.

“He was taking risks, he was running hard and it was difficult to defend against a player like that because every time he touched the ball it was to do something. You needed, and still need, to have extreme concentration.”

Willy Sagnol playing for France against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup semi-final
Sagnol alongside France captain Zinedine Zidane during the 2006 World Cup semi-final against Portugal - Getty Images/Valery Hache

Ronaldo may be a little less dynamic in 2024, but his goalscoring prowess at international level is still among the best and the Al Nassr forward has a world record 130 goals for Portugal. Georgia is not among the 46 countries against which Ronaldo has scored, however, and Sagnol is hoping it stays that way.

“We are talking about one of the best ever players in football history - on the same level as Pele, Maradona, Zidane,” the Georgia coach says. “Iconic players. The difference is that he reached the top of football but is still playing and performing.

“He’s going to be such a great source of motivation for my players because they will all want to play against him. Georgia hasn’t faced Portugal in qualification so my players have only dreamed of playing against Ronaldo. Now it’s the reality and that is a source of extreme motivation.”

Sagnol has proved an expert at eking out every ounce of ability from his players since becoming Georgia coach in 2021. He inherited a team psychologically damaged by a Euro 2020 play-off final defeat to North Macedonia but after a dramatic penalty shootout victory over Greece in Tbilisi in March, those demons were finally laid to rest.

Georgia's fans celebrate the victory of their team in the Euro 2024 qualifying play-off soccer match
Georgia fans on the pitch after their penalty shootout win over Greece in the Euros play-offs - AP/Tamuna Kulumbegashvili

“Up until March, people were still talking about that North Macedonia match - but then in Georgia people still talk about the 1981 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final when Dinamo Tbilisi beat Carl Zeiss Jena,” Sagnol laughs.

“It’s a part of Georgian culture to talk a lot about the past and what happened - good things or bad things. I did everything I could to take this pressure away from the players. They needed to stay cold against Greece and they did it.

“That night, this qualification, it provided so many emotions. I could see it on the faces of the fans in the stadium and on the streets; young people, old people, everyone crying together and talking about the unity of the country. For me that was the biggest thing I will remember.

“When, as a country, you are waiting for something for 30-35 years, it becomes the biggest dream, the biggest achievement. I think some people are still dreaming about it, they still can’t believe it’s done. In the moment of victory, that’s how it feels - ‘wow, did we really make it?’”

Willy Sagnol on the touchline during Georgia's game against Czech Republic
Willy Sagnol guided Georgia to Euro 2024 thanks to a penalty shootout victory over Greece - Getty Images/Marco Steinbrenner

Sagnol’s approach with Georgia has been full of purpose and pragmatism. As one of Europe’s most respected defenders, he enjoyed a glittering career that included winning the 2001 Champions League during nine trophy-laden years with Bayern.

And when it mattered most for Georgia, in their Euro 2024 play-off semi-final victory over Luxembourg and in the final against Greece, Sagnol’s side kept successive clean sheets to earn a place at Europe’s top table for the first time. At this tournament they bounced back from a 3-1 defeat to Turkey to draw 1-1 with Czech Republic. It is largely down to work ethic.

“On the physical side, we played absolutely fantastically,” Sagnol recalls of the qualifying campaign. “The amount of kilometres, the amount of high-speed, high-intensity runs was amazing. The way Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain are playing, it’s not our way because we don’t have the players for that.

“But we have completely different qualities, a different football culture. We are a team that likes to defend but not but only defend because we can transition and this is one of our best qualities.”

At the heart of Sagnol’s defence is captain Guram Kashia, the most capped Georgian player of all time with 110 appearances. He played for eight years in the Eredivisie with Vitesse and is currently with Slovak champions Slovan Bratislava.

Had Georgia lost against Greece, Kashia would have retired from international football. Instead, he made history leading his team-mates out at Euro 2024. Many may have felt just being at the Euros is a victory. But pre-tournament Kashia said: “We are not going to Germany for our holidays, we want to fight. I know half of Georgia will show up and we are taking this seriously.”

Sagnol emphasises that his job as a coach is to empower his players to find the answers on the pitch when they are challenged. They did so successfully to make it to the Euros and they have not looked overawed by their first foray into a major tournament.

“It is a difficult group but when you are Georgia and you qualify for the Euros for the first time, any group is a difficult group,” Sangnol says.

“I think as a football coach you always have to accept that it will likely be good one day and s--- the day after but we really want to achieve something in Germany for the fans.

“Whenever we have won or lost, people have come to me in the streets in Georgia and given me a lot of love and respect. Sport has this power to give special moments to people and we certainly hope to give Georgians something to remember this summer.”