From playing the war-torn streets of Tbilisi as a boy to being released by Lokomotiv Tbilisi only 3 years after going professional, the road to success has been a rocky one for Zurab Khizanishbili. Although these speed bumps slowed him down, Zurab would use this plus the lessons he learned from his footballing father to spurn him on to success. Over the next two decades, Zurab would build a successful career in Scotland, England and Turkey and represent his country across all levels including at the senior level over 113 times (including some as captain) making him one of the most successful and decorated Georgian players of all time.
Back Of The Net: Zurab, thank you for taking the time to chat to us today. Your father Nodar Khizanishvili won the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1981 with Dinamo Tbilisi five months before you were born. How much of an influence was he on you and your decision to become a professional footballer?
Zurab Khizanishvili: Of course, he played a big role for me to become a professional football player.
BOTN: You grew up in Georgia which until 1991 was part of the Soviet Union. What was it like for you growing up in Tbilisi amidst rising tensions between the US and Soviet Union?
ZK: It was a really hard time, continuously it was a hard time between Georgia and Russia. But we always tried to play football on the streets.
BOTN: Your break came at Dinamo Tbilisi but you never really got a chance to prove yourself so moved to FC Tbilisi then to Lokomotiv in order to get first team games. They eventually released you in 2001. How difficult were those formative years of your career?
ZK: I was so young when I came to Dinamo Tbilisi and this time I couldn’t play a lot of games then I moved to FC Tbilisi and Lokomotiv, and in Lokomotiv I got my chance to play the games.
BOTN: In Scotland, you linked up with fellow Georgians Temuri Ketsbaia and Georgi Nemsadze at Dundee and then with Shota Arveladze at Rangers. Does it help to feel more settled at a foreign club if you have fellow countrymen around you?
ZK: It was really helpful from Nemsadze, Ketsbaia, Arveladze. I was just 18 years old to go abroad and it wasn’t easy for me.
BOTN: Over the course of your career, you have played for some big clubs including Dinamo Tbilisi, Glasgow Rangers, Blackburn, Newcastle and Reading. What are your favourite memories of those clubs? Do you still follow them closely?
ZK: As much as I can I have contacts with the clubs and the players. And I am best friends with some players.
BOTN: Your former Rangers teammate Fernando Ricksen is suffering from a horrible condition known as ALS. Can you put into words what type of character Ricksen was during his and your time at Rangers and how you feel seeing him now?
ZK: Fernando Ricksen was one of my best teammates, as a personal he is the most important guy in the club, he made a good atmosphere in the club and he was one of the professional footballers I have ever seen.
BOTN: In the latter stages of your career, you spent time at clubs in Turkey, Azerbaijan and back home in Georgia. Was that a conscious decision based on what was best for your family?
ZK: I left England and moved to Turkey because of my family so they could be near Georgia, second reason is that at Kayserispor head coach was Shota Arveladze and you know our connection. Then I moved to Georgia and last three years I played in Azerbaijan.
BOTN: You earned over 113 caps combined for Georgia at all levels from Under 17’s to the senior side. Are there any games that stand out for you looking back now?
ZK: I just played 93 caps (at senior level) and if I chose one game it would be Georgia against Russia, we won 1-0. It was an amazing feeling.
BOTN: Captaining your country must have been a proud moment for you. How did it feel the first time that you did it? Do you still remember that game?
ZK: Yes, of course I remember every moment and every game. And of-course I remember my first time captaining in National Team and also, I was a captain when Georgia beat Scotland 2-0.
BOTN: Your former Georgia teammate Kakha Kaladze is the current mayor of Tbilisi. Do you have any ambitions to follow him into politics?
ZK: No, I have never had an interest in politics, I think in football I can do more for my country.
BOTN: I see you are working as assistant manager of the Georgia Under 21’s right now. Is that something you enjoy? Do you aspire to become a club manager at some point?
ZK: In last ten years I was very interested in becoming a coach and I am so happy to work as a U21 assistant coach, and I am just waiting for a pro license.
BOTN: Finally, some quick hits – best player played with or against?
ZK: Cristiano Ronaldo.
BOTN: Happiest moment in football?
ZK: First game in National Team.
BOTN: If you could manage one club in the world, which one would it be?