The North Caucasus is a place in which brotherhood is not joined, but born into. It is a volatile part of the world, a stunning mountainous backdrop to a cauldron of religious tension, ancient tradition and a political razor’s edge along which even Vladimir Putin himself is cautious to walk. In recent decades the region has seen war, reconciliation, insurgency and huge investment, and understandably its inhabitants possess a sense of belonging to something away from the Muscovite centre – an identity vilified and romanticised in equal measure in the Western media, and one which is self-perpetuating as a result.
In footballing terms, this leads to a complex system of alliance and rivalry, and one which has not infrequently been linked to the shadier shade of the Russian game. A recent survey of football in Eastern Europe revealed that around half of Russia’s professional footballers are aware of attempts, successful or otherwise, to fix matches in competition. In the North Caucasus, practices which would be frowned upon anywhere else in the country, let alone the footballing world, are generally accepted as an unavoidable consequence of geography – with local sides at times rivaling the Moscow teams in terms of numbers, the exchange of home wins and conveniently-timed player loans were and are a convenient way of maintaining top flight status in a Premier League becoming increasingly competitive at the bottom end of the table.
Nevertheless, It is impossible to deny the rudimentary form of fraternity which exists between the Caucasian sides. At the 2011 Russian Cup Final, fans of Alania Vladikavkaz resorted to chanting the names of the big four – Alania, Spartak Nalchik, Terek Grozny and Anzhi Makhachkala – whilst a noticeable number of Spartak fans attended with flags in support of their regional allies. But there is also a rivalry which dates back to a time preserved in the classics of Russian literature, one of blood feuds, horseback kidnappings and ethno-tribal divisions across the vast mountain range. In a wider context, they delight in their brothers’ success, but on a local level they are nothing but rivals, and are equally pleased to see the others suffer.
As such, the current situation in particularly difficult for fans in the area to comprehend. For years, the scene was set almost in stone – Alania were indeed the flagship club, challenging central dominance and living in the glory of their improbably title win in 1995. Around them, Spartak were little more than makeweights in the First Division, Anzhi flirted with promotion for a number of years whilst Terek were more a concept than a reality, two Chechen wars rendering the notion of football in Grozny somewhat irrelevant. Only in 2008 were they once more allowed to play home games in Grozny, hanging on to Premier League status in the process.
Now however, all has changed. Anzhi are the most talked-about club in Russia, their new found wealth earning them Western interest as well as domestic disdain for lavish spending on players deemed to be mercenaries. Terek still cling on to top flight football but have become the personal plaything of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, whilst Alania are a shadow of their former glories and have somehow contrived to be relegated into the First Division despite attracting crowds larger than Dinamo Moscow. Spartak Nalchik have stepped into their Premier position, but after making waves under Yuri Krasnozhan are in real danger of dropping out of Russia’s elite competition.
Whilst it would be a huge injustice to Krasnozhan’s achievements to claim that Alania’s demise and Anzhi’s growth are contributing factors to Spartak’s slow slide down the league, more cynical readers may well note his dismissal from Lokomotiv Moscow earlier in the season for his alleged part in unlawful dealings, consider the removal of one ally through relegation and another through capital, and see six points lost as an important footnote. However it is more likely due to the departure of Krasnozhan himself – there can be little doubt of his managerial ability given his shock promotion with Spartak, flying start with Lokomotiv and recent appointment at Anzhi, and Sergei Tashuev has not yet shown that same tactical prowess or transfer market expertise. Just one season after a formidable home record saw them narrowly miss out on Europe, Spartak now find themselves embroiled in a relegation battle which appears unlikely to end in anything better than a playoff to save their status.
With Alania looking like certainties to reclaim the Premier League position which many believe is rightfully theirs, it would initially appear that the North Caucasus region is not in fact losing anything from the probable swap – Alania are historically and currently the bigger club, whilst Spartak’s history books remains largely unwritten. However, in a season in which the Moscow Four appear to be reasserting their presence, when Anzhi’s billions has left them out of touch with their local reality, and with a Terek side threatening a relegation of its own, Nalchik’s departure represents a significant weakening, both of the informal alliance of the Caucasian clubs and the diversity of a league slowly retreating from the borderlands. If that is to be reestablished sooner rather than later, a new Krasnozhan could well be the only option.