Vito Kolelishvili: rugby player on 'unpaid managers and sportsmen' in Georgia

Article published on Feb. 10, 2009
Article published on Feb. 10, 2009
In 2004, Vito Kolelishvili became a professional rugby player with Lelos, the national rugby union team. At 19, he is one of the few rugby players nominated ‘best player of 2008’, shortly after the Georgian national tournament ended. Interview

How did you begin?

I had to work hard to catch up with my team members. It’s been difficult and surprising at times; for example, I didn’t expect being nominated best player of 2008. As a sportsman it is one of the most important things to feel that your caution is appreciated, it gives you self-confidence and you feel much more motivated to move forward. It’s really a huge honour for me that gives me more strength to be successful not only in Georgia but in other countries too.

What, if anything, holds you back?

The biggest problem for the Georgian rugby world is that we lack stadiums. Can you imagine a rugby team without a stadium? Only one team has its own ground.

The biggest problem for the Georgian rugby world is that we lack stadiums

Every time we have training we have to beg other people to lend us an arena. Teams do not have sponsors or people to take charge of a problem. We end up moving from one region to another just for the opportunity to play. 

How much are rugby players and trainers paid?

Neither are paid - at all. Trainers work on minimum income yet they are still doing their best. Their enthusiasm is based on their love of rugby and nothing more.

(Image: Nino Gogua)

Is it free to study rugby?

Trainers wave the wage for a budding sportsman. If you are really motivated, no one will demand 40 - 50 Georgian lari from you per month (18 - 23 euros or £17 – £21). They might ask for some kind of ‘team fee’ of 10 lari (4 euros 60) to contribute to buying balls or uniforms, but if the parents can’t afford it, it’s fine. In Tbilisi people generally have a better standard of living and so usually parents can afford fees. The situation is worse in the smaller towns; a friend of mine plays in a regional team and trainers have no income at all! I am not exaggerating.

Businessmen can’t risk investing; they have no experience of putting money in any sport

Businessmen aren’t interested in investing in rugby players, as is practice in developed countries. They can’t risk it; they have no experience of putting money in any sport. The only financial source comes from the governmental department of sport. Sometimes, there are prizes for matches. At the 2008 national tournament, 350 000 lari (161, 000 euros) was given to the team, but nothing for any footballer separately. It was a gift from the president. Sometimes there are very little prizes for the best players, but it’s rare is a very little sum of money to be enough to improve any skill. 

Does the team have health insurance?

It’s a new thing in Georgian sport. But the last time I injured my foot and ended up in hospital, there were so many problems connected with the insurance company that I decided to pay my own money.

Do you want to continue your career abroad?

(Image: Nino Gogua)Is there any rugby player who wants to improve as a sportsman and does not want to play in a foreign team? I don’t! I have more goals here that I can achieve by staying this year. But in the long term, with unpaid trainers and no wages for sportsmen, how far can you go? It’s all very well whilst you’re young, talented and with a good trainer. But when you’re older, want your own income and justly want to build up a career after all that hard work, there appears to be more motivation to leave your country. 

How many Georgian rugby players play abroad? 

I don’t know the precise number, but there are many. Most have gone to France, because they are well paid there and can express themselves fully playing in a good team. I would like to go to France or England, where they play highly professional rugby.

Some good players are ready to play in Azerbaijan just to have a minimal income

I would not move to Spain or Poland or other countries that have the same level of rugby players as Georgia has. If I leave the country, and I want to, it would be to be more successful than in Georgia. There are some good rugby players who are in such bad conditions that they are ready to play in Azerbaijan just to have a minimal income. 

What are your plans for the future?

I was invited to play in ‘seven men’. The trainer will be selecting the team members for the nationals soon. I will put all my strength in training. When it is over I will think of moving to a foreign team - if there will be any interest in me!