A year ago, the best wingers in the world were playing somewhere in Spain, France, Italy, Germany or England. In other words: where they always play. Vinicius Junior was having his first true-superstar season with Real Madrid. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were having their last joint-superstar season together with Liverpool. And Kylian Mbappe was, well, Kylian Mbappe.
Throw in Rafael Leao, who was driving AC Milan to their first Serie A title in over a decade, and these were the defining players at the defining position in the modern game. At least, as far as we knew.
In fact, at this time last season, one of the best wingers in the world might not have been playing soccer at all. After Russia invaded Ukraine last March, FIFA announced that all foreign players in Russia would be allowed to suspend their contracts and join new clubs in other countries. And on March 24, 2022, a player you'd never heard of signed with a team you'd heard of in passing.
After 11 games with Dinamo Batumi in his native Georgia to wrap up the 2021-22 campaign, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia signed with Napoli for €11.5 million last summer. Almost immediately, he not only became a player you knew; thanks to his name and his irresistible skill with a soccer ball, he turned into a player you couldn't forget. He's the first player -- ever -- to score 10 goals and assist 10 goals in his inaugural Italian season. It's still March.
Call him whatever you want -- Kvara, Kvaradona, Kvaravaggio, Che Kvara -- but the facts are undeniable. Along with striker Victor Osimhen, the 22-year-old Kvaratskhelia has Napoli on the verge of their first Serie A title since Diego Maradona was playing in Naples. Not only that, but they're more likely to make the Champions League final, per FiveThirtyEight, than any other team in the world.
This is an era in which Real Madrid are spending tens of millions of dollars on Brazilian teenagers every year, Barcelona are starting multiple midfielders who can't yet rent a car in Connecticut, 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe cost €180 million for PSG to acquire, and Premier League players like Bukayo Saka and Trent Alexander-Arnold become club legends before their mid-20s. And yet one of the best players in the world -- a large, unstoppable, know-it-as-soon-you-see-it winger -- was playing in the Erovnuli Liga for the 543rd-best team in Europe (according to ClubElo.com) as recently as last May.
How did everyone miss Kvara? How the heck did he get here? And what, if anything, does his star turn say about the way soccer works -- or doesn't work -- today?