“When I announced that my football career had ended, I said that the most important match in my life was starting now,” said the recently-retired defender, one of the most successful players in the ex-Soviet state’s history.
Twice winner of the Champions League with Italy’s AC Milan, 34-year-old Kaladze will run for parliament this autumn with an opposition coalition led by a billionaire tycoon who has vowed to defeat Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s governing party.
“It was a very difficult decision and it came after long reflection. But there is such injustice in my country, so many people live in hardship,” Kaladze said at the Georgian Dream coalition’s headquarters which faces Saakashvili’s presidential palace across Tbilisi’s Mtkvari river.
Tensions have soared in recent weeks as Georgian Dream’s super-rich leader Bidzina Ivanishvili has been fined tens of millions of dollars for allegedly trying to buy his way to victory.
“All this is a result of the authorities’ fear,” said Kaladze, who still looks like an immaculately-styled Italian football star with his shock of dark curly hair and designer stubble.
“What we face today is illegal and unfair,” he said.
The powerful defender forged his reputation at Dinamo Tbilisi, where he won the Georgian league championship five times before moving to Dynamo Kyiv and adding three Ukrainian titles.
Italian giants AC Milan then signed him for a Georgian record fee of 16 million euros, but during the years that followed, he experienced tragedy as well as success.
He won Italy’s Serie A title as well as two Champions League victory medals, but also lost his brother Levan, who was was found murdered in 2006 after being kidnapped for ransom five years earlier by Georgian criminals seeking to profit from Kaladze’s football riches.
A new game with different rules
Kaladze quit football this year while still playing at the highest level with Genoa in Serie A, but has quickly realised that his new game plays by less gentlemanly rules.
“There are many more challenges in politics than in sport,” he acknowledged, adding that he expected “difficult matches ahead” against a government determined to remain in power.
Georgia’s pro-Western leader has accused Ivanishvili, who made his $6.4 billion fortune in Russia, of being a stooge for Moscow which fought a war with Tbilisi in 2008 and maintains troops in two breakaway Georgian regions that it has recognised as independent states.
“We know very well that a large amount of Russian money is coming into Georgia with direct orders from the Kremlin,” Saakashvili said recently.
Kaladze said it was “absurd” to describe the opposition as “Putin’s people” but insisted that the relationship with Russia must be improved if his nation is to regain its lost land.
“It will be very important for us to start dialogue with the Russians, to restore diplomatic relations and to start discussions on how to return Georgia’s territories which are currently under the Russian army’s occupation,” he said.
Amid the bitterly polarised pre-poll struggle, Kaladze has also been accused by a pro-government TV channel of fraternising with Georgian crime bosses in a recent broadcast he described as a “cheap smear campaign”.
“I have nothing in common with the mafia, neither in the past nor now,” he said.
It is not unusual for Georgian political parties to entice voters by using celebrities as candidates.
“It’s a problem of a country where you don’t have policy-oriented political parties or competition on the grounds of ideology,” said analyst Gia Nodia.
Although opinion polls have put the governing party well ahead of the opposition, Nodia believes Kaladze has a good chance of being elected in his hometown constituency of Samtredia.
“He’s a big hero there and I would not be surprised if he won,” he said.