Reds Review – Terek Grozny: Independence, war and football

On Monday morning the Moscow underground metro system was struck by suicide bombers, killing 39 people and injuring scores more. The co-ordinated attacks were attributed to a North Caucasus militant group, one of the many rebel cells waging an independence war from Russian rule.

The complex background to the grievances of states such as the Caucasians, the Ossetians and Chechens can be traced back over hundreds of years, and the growth of the Russian Empire when large swathes of territories were seized as the Empire expanded from Eastern Europe and across Northern Asia. The acquirement of land saw the Empire take on board wide ranging religions, cultures and ethnicities, making Russia one of the most diverse populations in the world. The break-up of the Soviet Union saw independence granted to a number of former Soviet states, yet others were never granted freedom, and as such, bitter and bloody feuds are continuing to be waged. The Russian Government are quick to label incidents such as Mondays as ‘terrorist attacks’. The metro bombs were the latest in a line of atrocities in the political heartland of Moscow, and follow on from the not too distant disasters of the Moscow Theatre siege of 2002 and the Beslan tragedy of 2004. The-pre-empted strikes were launched at the Central Lubyanka Railway station, which runs beneath the headquarters of the Federal security Service (FSB), and of course, the geo-political connotations can also be linked to the countries national sport.

Just 24 hours previous, the station was being used as a commuter point for fans travelling to see the Moscow derby between Spartak and Lokomotiv. Later on Sunday evening a clash was taking place 800km east of the capital featuring two sides from areas who scarcely consider themselves Russian, under the masthead of the Russian Premier League. Domestic champions Rubin Kazan from the largely Muslim republic of Tatarstan hosted Terek Grozny, aside from Chechnya, a region with a long and fierce history of conflict with the motherland. The Chechens have been battling with the Russians since the 17th century, revolting against their imposed colonial rule. The Chechens also see themselves as being heavily persecuted by the Russians. After the Second World War, Joseph Stalin accused the Chechen people of collaborating with the Nazi’s and ordered the uprooting of the whole population to the harsh lands of central Asia. Thousands of Chechens died during the relocation and their treatment bred great resentment of their rulers, and independence from Moscow was demanded, resulting in two brutal wars in the region, from 1994 -1996 and again in 1999 to 2000.

Given the hostile relations between the two facets, Terek’s participation in the competition harbours great nationalistic pride. The team are extremely well supported in Chechnya, and are heavily funded by the republics budget. Grozny is the capital of Chechnya and the club was formed in 1946, however, they were forced to disband in the mid 1990’s due to the escalating violence in the area. Terek reformed in 2000, and just four years later, from the bowels of the lower leagues, went on to win the Russian cup. However, the story of Terek’s success was not as cut and dry as simply a team from a war-ravaged city come good, the full story is another entailing politics and propaganda.

Just a month before Terek’s cup final appearance, the countries Kremlin-backed President and Terek owner Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in a bomb during celebrations being held at the club’s Dynamo Stadium. Chechen rebels triumphantly claimed responsibility for the blast, angered at the perceived communication between President Kadyrov and the Russian government. The perpetrator of the bombing eventually turned out to be Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, who was bizarrely head of the Chechen Football Association just a few years earlier. Indeed, Terek’s victorious cup run was unfortunately the source of much scepticism from both sides of the divide, with detractors suggesting that it came as no coincidence that the triumph was littered with instances of generous refereeing in their favour, and even allegations that Krylya Sovetov – their opponents in the final – were paid off to ensure a Terek win, and as a result, give off the perception that all was well in the previously troubled province. At the time, relations between the Kremlin and the Chechen authorities were at a sensitive stage, and football success was seen as being a convenient pacifier at a crucial stage in discussions between the governments.

In reality, the truth will never be known and whilst it is disrespectful to discredit the team’s achievements, the wider political picture invariably leaves the door open to outside influence, and makes a mockery of the theory that football is simply a game played by working class men with a ball. Whatever the full picture, it has not stopped Terek flourishing in the years prevailing the wars. After winning the cup, Terek were also promoted to the Premier League in 2004 after storming the First Division, they swiftly got relegated and arrived back in the Premier in 2008, recording comfortable mid-table finishes in that year, and 2009. Now, in the infant 2010 table, Terek find themselves sixth, unbeaten after three games, having emerged unscathed from the perilous trip to champions Rubin. Such a lofty position may prove untenable through the whole season once the Moscow powerhouses grind through the gears, but this promising start reflects the Chechen region as a whole, prospering after adversity.

Given all of the problems over the identity of Terek, a look at their squad shows few players with birth ties to the region. Amongst their roster are an Israeli, two Ukrainians, an Argentinian, a Bulgarian, a Bolivian, three Brazilians and numerous Russian nationals. A sprinkling of fringe and youth players are of Chechen descent, but largely the playing staff are a multi-national gathering of footballers, career professionals, largely devoid of the nationalistic connotations the Chechen republic represents for its people. There, in summary, is a notion of just how binding the game of football is. Terek as a team are the beacon of hope, of honour, of representation for a nation and its people who have suffered centuries of abuse and persecution, yet, their heroes who sport the shirt and play for their name, are simply pawns in the game. Individuals with wages to earn, with families to feed, with jobs to do, unattached to the broader political arena in which they are taking part. It is too easy not to refer to the late, great Bill Shankly’s words about football, life and death.

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