Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechens March on Europe – With a Ball

Celebrations in war-torn Chechnya as Terek Grozny win Russia’s football championship.
By Jamal Ginazov

Just two minutes remained in the match when the No. 9 forward darted forward in the penalty area, passing three defenders and scoring a goal.

The last-gasp goal in the final of the Russian Cup by Andrei Fedkov snatched a 1-0 victory for unlikely underdogs Terek Grozny, and handed the team from embattled, wounded Chechnya - who play their league matches in a borrowed stadium - a famous victory.

Everyone interpreted Terek’s astonishing victory on May 29 – which gives them a place in next year’s UEFA cup – in their own way. For President Vladimir Putin, who warmly congratulated the winners, it was proof that Chechnya is firmly part of the Russian Federation.

And even though Terek are strongly associated with the Kremlin’s pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, that is not how everyone saw it. For ordinary Chechens of every political persuasion, the cup win was a sign that Chechnya had beaten Russia, “not with the sword but with a ball”.

“Top-level sport is always political,” said Lom-Ali Ibragimov, a former referee who is now general director of Terek Grozny. “If the capital of a republic has a good theatre or a good football team, then the republic can hold its head up high. That’s our objective – to show that Chechnya doesn’t have bandits and extremists, just normal people.”

First division Terek Grozny faced a formidable challenge in their premier league opponents Krylya Sovetov (Wings of the Soviets), which boasts probably the best striker currently playing in Russia, Andrei Karyaka.

The 10,000 fans from Krylya Sovetov’s home town of Samara heavily outnumbered the Terek supporters in the Lokomotiv stadium in Moscow, but the noisy shouts of “Terek” and “Nokchi cho” (Chechnya in the Chechen language) resounded round the ground.

A whole bank of seats was taken up with a colour portrait of the late president of both Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov – who was also chairman of Terek - assassinated on May 9. Under the portrait were written the words “We remember you”. A minute’s silence for the slain leader preceded the game, as did the Russian national anthem.

In a hard-fought game, Krylya Sovetov missed a number of good chances and struck both Terek’s post and crossbar. In the 87th minute, Karyaka shot wide in front of a virtually open goal. But it was Fedkov who scored the winner in the first minute of injury time.

It is hard to describe the scenes that followed the final whistle. Three of the players performed a dazzling Caucasian dance, and they threw their coach Vahit Talgayev and their acting president Ramzan Kadyrov into the air. In a mixture of Chechen and Russian tradition, cries of “Allahu Akbar” went up, the team did a lap of honour and champagne was drunk.

“It was the most important goal in my career,” said a radiant Andrei Fedkov. “And if it brings the Chechen republic closer to us just by one day, it means I have played my role of a peaceful Chechen foot soldier.”

His team-mate Oleg Terekhin said, “It’s not my first cup, but I am glad that skill is the measure of success in football, and not a line in your passport,” he said in reference to the old definition of ethnicity in Soviet documents. “And you can’t just drink skill even from the Cup of Russia!”

The reaction in Grozny was just as ecstatic. The match was broadcast on both Chechen television channels and the streets of the city emptied as everyone stayed home to watch. For half an hour after the match the air was filled with gunfire as Chechens celebrated the victory in traditional fashion.

The success of Terek Grozny this season has provided a morale boost for Chechens after all the tragedies of the last decade, both inside Chechnya and further afield. Lev Lansky, a Grozny-born Terek supporter who now lives in the United States, composed a song for them, which begins with the lines, “Our Terek Grozny, you are holding a banner of victory in safe hands. Wicked fire has destroyed our city, but you are still in our faithful hearts!”

“We play for our fans,” said Terek coach Vahit Talgayev. “And as soon as the chance arises, we’ll bring the team back to Grozny.”

Terek are currently based in the town of Kislovodsk, 250 kilometres from Grozny, and play their matches in the nearby stadium at Pyatigorsk. Their old stadium was so badly bombed that it cannot be restored. But when President Putin visited Chechnya last month, he gave orders for a new stadium to be built by next year.

The team has only started playing properly again this season after a ten-year gap, and after Talgayev spent years tracking down old players and hiring new ones. He has an official budget of three million US dollars, provided by the local government, the Rosneft oil company and private donations. But most observers say the team has much more money at its disposal, judging by the quality of the players it has acquired. Only six of the current team are natives of Chechnya.

Asked by the sports newspaper Ramzan Kadyrov whom he would like Terek to play in the UEFA cup, Ramzan Kadyrov answered “Chelsea. They do have a Russian owner after all.”

In fact, with Chelsea in the more prestigious Champions’ League, Terek are more likely to play an English team like Millwall in the UEFA tournament.

To prepare for games at this level, Terek will have to move to a different stadium, and is considering options in Vladikavkaz, Rostov or even Moscow.

Vladikavkaz seems the most likely option – although foreign teams have refused to play there because of its proximity to Chechnya. It seems highly unlikely that Terek will be able to play its home games in the North Caucasus.

All that is for later. For now, the celebrations are still going on.

“At last the world knows that Chechens are a peaceful people who can play football and create something,” said Talgayev.

“When they used to speak about Chechnya, people only talked about cleansing operations and bombing – but now they can say that they can play football. And of course boys will grow up and want to play sport. I think they will be more attracted to footballs than to machine guns.”

Jamal Ginazov is editor-in-chief of the weekly journal Delovoi Ural in Yekaterinburg. Aslanbek Dadayev is a correspondent for Radio Liberty in the North Caucasus.

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