When he was a kid, he admired and kept a close eye on mythical Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon. As he grew older, it’s Manuel Neuer who became his role model. He marvels at the diligence and professionalism of Cristiano Ronaldo. Although he also admits that he’s not among the Portugese’s die-hard fans, his mentality is akin. “I don’t tolerate any kind of failure,” says Giorgi Mamardashvili, a 22-year-old goalkeeper who’s one of the main reasons Valencia CF – who failed to ensure their La Liga status until the very last matchday of the season – haven’t got relegated to Segunda División for just the second time in the club’s rich history.
Mamardashvili grew up and lived in Gldani, an administrative district in Tbilisi. Like father, like son: his dad, David, is a former goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach of FC Gagra, where Giorgi was taking his first steps in football. At the age of 12, he joined the highly productive Dinamo Tbilisi academy, which unleashed upon the world the new generation of Georgian talents already taking the national team by storm, including the likes of Giorgi Chakvetadze (1999), Zuriko Davitashvili (2001), Anzor Mekvabishvili (2001), Irakli Azarovi (2002), Luka Gagnidze (2003) and, of course, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (2001).
As a 13/14-year-old kid, he was ineligible to play for Dinamo Tbilisi and joined FC Merani Martvili on a six-month loan. The destination wasn’t haphazard as his dad was expecting him there, coaching keepers. He came back and succeeded in Dinamo since his early days, being a standout goalkeeper in various youth tournaments and leagues, where he excelled with his penalty-stopping aptitude. In his senior career, he faced 22 penalties, saving seven of them (32%).
In search of top-flight experience, Giorgi Mamardashvili has been loaned to FC Rustavi in the winter of 2019, where he spent one year, with 11 appearances, 11 goals conceded, and four clean sheets. His real breakthrough season took place in 2020, when he represented FC Locomotive Tbilisi, joining the side on another, two-year loan, that was cut short after a year and a half. At the age of just 20, he was named the best goalkeeper of the Erovnuli Liga. Despite being an international with Georgia in youth categories, it’s fair to say that he earned his transfer to Valencia CF thanks to a single performance: against Granada in a Europa League qualifier on September 24, 2020, which saw the Spanish side prevail 2-0.
“I was told that there was a goalkeeper at Lokomotiv Tiblisi who was outstanding, so I started following him,” recalls Antonio López, the agent who brought “Mama” to Estadio Mestalla. “After seeing him against Granada in the Europa League, I decided. I contacted Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, Girona, Villarreal, Betis… but they all told me, ‘A Georgian? Don’t kill me.’ I was pulling my hair out because I saw that he was a top goalkeeper.” Giorgi himself humbly admits: “I managed to be in the right place at the right time”. The beginnings were not that easy, though. “It was very difficult for me, because I didn’t know Spanish at all, I knew very little English and Cillessen helped me a lot because he knew English and approached me as a small kid. […] Later, I hired a teacher.”
Mamardashvili joined Valencia CF on loan. Initially, he was brought in to serve for VCF Mestalla – Valencia’s reserve team – for €50,000, with an €800,000 purchase clause. His yearly salary was just €70,000 gross, but he had a clause in his contract that guaranteed him €7,000 per game played in the first team if he would appear in at least 20 matches. He participated in 21 games in the 2021/22 season and collected over twice his salary in bonuses alone.
But what led to the meteoric rise of the Georgian Wall? The tall goalie was promised to take part in the first team’s 2021/22 preseason. The new coach, Pepe Bordalás, was at his wit’s end – both Jasper Cillessen and Jaume Domènech were injured during the pretemporada. Mamardashvili, Los Ches’ fourth goalkeeper at that time (Cristian Rivero, implicitly a third choice between the sticks, renewed his contract in June), featured in four of seven preseason games and impressed everyone to the point of starting against Getafe in the opening game of the season. The outcome? He was named the best goalkeeper of Matchday 1 by La Liga in his official debut for Blanquinegros.
After playing in the first six games, Mamardashvili disappeared. He had a bad time in two matches in a row, against Real Madrid and Sevilla, and Jasper Cillessen recovered from his injury in the interim. The Georgian haven’t played for four months and a half (Valencia still exercised Giorgi’s buyout clause at the end of 2021), getting another chance, due to Cillessen’s second injury of the campaign, in February 2022.
He took the opportunity: six clean sheets after the reappearance, just 13 goals conceded in 12 matches and 570 minutes without capitulating – the best streak for a Valencia CF keeper in a decade, just 109 minutes away from the club’s all-time record set by none other than Santiago Cañizares in 2003/04 – meant one thing: he’s here to stay. Cillessen’s time in Valencia CF is over.
As is customary for Valencia, another coach bid farewell to the club. After a ninth-place finish in La Liga, Bordalás left Mestalla. Gennaro Gattuso took over; a coach who is more offensive-minded and prefers to play it short from the back, with pivot dropping deep to receive balls from the goalkeeper and centre backs. There it is, Mamardashvili’s weak spot: passing. He got better at it under Gattuso, but his ball distribution is something to work on if he wants to become a complete modern goalkeeper.
On September 8, 2022, Jaume Domènech tore his ACL. With Jasper Cillessen already gone, Giorgi Mamardashvili became an undisputed starter for both Gattuso and his successor, Rubén Baraja: only “Mama”, David Soria and Álex Remiro have played all minutes possible in 2022/23 Primera División. Last time it happened in Valencia CF? 24 years ago, when Cañizares played all 3420 league minutes. Mamardashvili is also the youngest Valencia CF goalkeeper ever to reach 50 league games. Santi, on a side note, is a huge admirer of Mamardashvili’s talent. But who isn’t?
Despite the constant turmoil in the club, shaky defence, and 16th-place finish in La Liga, Valencia had the 10th-best defensive record in the league. This is mainly thanks to José Gayà’s and Giorgi Mamardashvili’s constant, high form. “He’s a goalkeeper who handles well low shots, reaches balls that can be challenging for taller goalkeepers, like Courtois or Donnarumma, who struggle there. Mama defends well, he is an agile and fast goalkeeper,”, states Víctor Mongil, ex-player of Dinamo Tbilisi.
It’s no wonder that teams like Inter, Manchester United, Chelsea or Porto are having the 22-year-old keeper on their wishlist. But will he leave Valencia this summer? “Unfortunately, Valencia is going through a rough patch even though they are a well-known and respected team. There is a high probability that Giorgi will leave Valencia at the end of the season. In fact, I can reveal that I recently traveled to England and met with several top clubs. I am hopeful that Giorgi will be playing in the Premier League next season. […] The club should be a top one, playing in the Champions League! This is what I can confirm now,”, told Levan Seturidze, the player’s agent, back in May. Starting price? Around €30m plus high variables. Peanuts for a player of his quality.
Giorgi Mamardashvili will most likely become a part of the goalkeepers’ transfer circle: the likes of Diogo Costa, Mike Maignan, André Onana, and David Raya and may all change clubs before the 2023/24 season, whilst Guglielmo Vicario is already on his way to Tottenham. My guess? André Onana will join Manchester United and Giorgi will become his successor between the sticks of Nerazzurri. Keep an eye on him and watch him become one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
By: Michał Kosim / @en_kosim
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images