Guram Kashia - San Jose Earthquakes - closeup

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Having been a mainstay of the Georgian national team for the better part of a decade, San Jose Earthquakes center back Guram Kashia is not unaccustomed to the spotlight.

Yet little in his career prepared the 31-year-old for the level of attention he received for the simple act of putting on a captain’s armband in a match last year for Dutch side Vitesse – nor the kind of support he would receive after standing up for LGBTQ rights.

“It was number-one news for a week or 10 days,” Kashia told on Monday. “Imagine CNN starts with [that]. It was kind of scary for me, but I stand behind my opinion.”

On Wednesday, Kashia was named the recipient of the inaugural #EqualGame award from UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, for his stand in the wake of intense criticism after wearing a rainbow-colored armband in October. All captains throughout the Dutch top flight wore similar armbands on that matchday, but no other instance generated the kind of blowback that Kashia’s move did in his home country.

Internet trolls came out in force. At least one columnist called for Kashia to be dropped from the national team. And after Kashia gave a television interview highlighting his support for individual freedoms, eight people were arrested at a demonstration in front of the Georgian Football Federation headquarters, where a rainbow flag was burned.

“We are really religious people, and sometimes it’s quite challenging to be open on certain lifestyles, what people can have,” Kashia said. “As long as no one harms anyone else, you can be who you want to be. It’s like freedom of life. That’s what I’m standing behind.”

The GFF backed Kashia and the country’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, issued a statement of support, as did Georgian celebrities.

“Guram has taken an important stand to support the LGBT community and equality overall and deserves to win this award,” UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin said in a press release this week. “Even though his actions sparked threats and abuse from many groups, he preached tolerance and acceptance, and helped change perceptions of this minority group in his native country of Georgia.”

Kashia, who joined the Quakes from Vitesse in July, said he ignored the first few phone calls trying to tell him he was going to win the award, not knowing who it was on the other end of the line.

“Then I got a text message from UEFA, and I was like, ‘OK, something serious is going on,’ because no one from UEFA calls you on your cell phone, right?” Kashia said. “I was like, ‘Wow, you actually know my story.’ I felt really honored. It’s nothing to do with sport achievement. It’s something to do as a human being.”

Kashia won’t be able to accept the award in person at UEFA’s Champions League draw in Monaco on August 30 – there will be a video package instead – because the Quakes hostFC Dallas the previous evening.

Going from the soccer-centric world of Europe to the U.S., Kashia has been pleasantly surprised by the level of play and of the organization in San Jose.

“I didn’t expect such great circumstances here,” Kashia said, who made his MLS debut on July 25. “It’s organized, everything, on a high, high level, a really high level. I feel really in a professional environment.”

San Jose have improved upon their lackluster defensive performances since Kashia’s arrival, but still sit bottom of the league on 17 points.

“We are in last place, but I see potential,” Kashia said. “So many people are really open to improving, and that’s something that really I love to work in this kind of environment – young players, they listen. It gives me so much energy. I’m in the right place.”