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T alent can carry a terrible burden. On February 21 this year the AC Milan footballer Kakha Kaladze received the news he had been dreading: his brother, Levan, who had been kidnapped almost five years earlier, was dead.

While others at the club this weekend contemplate the pursuit of Juventus for the Italian championship, the Georgian defender, whose recent form has been central to their charge for the title, simply wonders what might have happened had he not been so gifted, had he not, in January 2001, made a lucrative move to Serie A.

Sports stars and their families, because of their fame and wealth, have become potential victims of kidnapping. As long ago as 1963, Alfrédo Di Stefano, the legendary Real Madrid footballer, was taken at gunpoint and held for three days by a revolutionary group in Venezuela. In 2004, the mother of Brazilian soccer star Robinho, now also a Real Madrid player, was kidnapped, and relatives of lesser-known players in Brazil have also been taken. Colombian cyclist Oliverio Rincon was kidnapped in 2000, and there have been alleged plots relating to England soccer captain David Beckham’s family.

Levan Kaladze was seized on May 23 2001 in the Digomi district of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, near the Railways Hospital where he was a medical student. He was approached by three or four men – witness accounts vary – who claimed they were policemen working with the drugs squad. They searched him and bundled him into a white Niva.

Police initially said they had traced the car as far as Mtskheta, a few miles north-west of Tbilisi, but the evidence of one of the four men arrested in connection with the crime suggests he was taken first to an apartment near the city centre, and then, after a few hours, moved to a two-room, seventh-floor apartment in the suburb of Vazisubani, where he was locked in a wardrobe.

Five days later, Kaladze’s aunt received a telephone call directing her to a place where the kidnappers had left a letter demanding a ransom of $600,000. In the days that followed, they were in regular contact. “There were several telephone calls and anonymous letters,” Kaladze said. “Then they sent a video in which Levan was blindfolded, begging for help.”

The demand was dropped to $200,000 and then to $65,000, which the Kaladze family agreed to pay. It was arranged that Kaladze’s father, Karlo, should deliver the money in cash to a wood near Khobi, a city in Samegrelo in the west of Georgia. Karlo went to the rendezvous but when he asked to speak to his son, the kidnappers panicked, something he blames on the incompetence of Georgian police.

“I was supposed to deliver the money and the police were supposed to be waiting,” he said. “They failed and they have never told me why.”

So frustrated did the Kaladze family become that Kakha considered renouncing his citizenship to become Ukrainian and Karlo threatened to set himself on fire in front of the Georgian parliament, describing it as “a disgrace” that the then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a former president of AC Milan, was, in his eyes, doing more to help find his son than the Georgian authorities.

Yet it is possible that Levan was already dead by the time Karlo went to his rendezvous in the forest. The exact date of Levan’s murder remains unclear but his body was found on July 4 2001 in the Vazisubani Gorge. “Some children found a skull,” remembers Aslan Khurcilava, a local resident. “They came to me and I called the police. There are stray dogs in the area so maybe they carried the skull into the street but the police soon found
a body missing the head, one leg and
a hand.”

The first person formally to examine the body was pathologist Paata Jiblaze. “The body was damaged but we could tell he was 25-35 years old,” he said. “He was wearing blue Dolce & Gabbana jeans, blue underwear and a blue Levi’s shirt – no shoes, no jacket.”

The description was circulated to every police department in Tbilisi but nobody made the link to Levan Kaladze. “That surprises me,” Vano Merabishvili, the Georgian minister of internal affairs, admitted. “We are investigating that.”

The body was buried on July 23, identified only by the number 5502, and for four-and-a-half years there seemed to be little progress in the case, other than a police raid in the village of Etsera in March 2003 against the notorious Aprasidze clan, who had been accused of a range of criminal activities, including the kidnapping, over a 12-year period. Omekha Aprasidze, the head of the family, and two of his sons were killed in a 40-minute gun battle; verdicts have yet to be reached against others arrested at the time.

Then, on January 10 this year, Swiss police picked up Davit Asatiani, a Georgian national, on suspicion of using
a false passport. In the following month, two other Georgians – Levan Tsintsadze and Temur Gagnidze – were arrested in Russia and France after similar doubts were raised about their papers. All three, it turned out, were wanted in Georgia – Asatiani and Tsintsadze in connection with a raid on a Turkish tourist bus; Gagnidze, who had lived in the same suburb of Tbilisi as the Kaladze family, over alleged links to a drug-trafficking operation.

Georgian police revealed they were seeking a third man over the bus robbery, Merab Amisulashvili, and he
was arrested in February. All have since been charged with the kidnapping and murder.

It turns out that Amisulashvili is a former footballer himself, once good enough to represent his country at Under-21 level. He even played against the 17-year-old Kakha Kaladze in a league game in 1995.

“We think that [Levan] Kaladze recognised one of the kidnappers by voice,” a police statement said, “and that they were worried the neighbours could hear him. We think they took him to the gorge and killed him there.”

Police have yet to reveal why the link was made to body 5502 but the corpse was disinterred in February and sent to the US for the FBI to carry out DNA testing. “They took a blood sample from my mother and compared it, and they confirmed the body was my brother’s,” Kaladze said. “I hope those who are guilty will be punished. Even until the last, I believed my brother was alive. Every day I waited for him to appear. I can’t believe this tragedy has happened to my family but it is something I will have to live with always.”

Whether closure can ever be achieved after such an enormity is doubtful but Kaladze’s form has been so good over the past two months that his coach, Carlo Ancelotti, has admitted it has forced Milan to rethink their summer transfer policy. Kaladze recognises, though, that it is football that brought grief upon his family and he has notably avoided any trite statements about winning Serie A for his brother; having trailed by 14 points at one stage, Milan would pull level with Juventus tomorrow if they were to beat Livorno at home and Juve lose at Siena.

“This has been a very tough period for my family,” he said. “I would like to thank the fans, my teammates and the club. They have helped me a lot but I am a man and it is me who has to live through this tragedy.”

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