This is part of a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
In one of FIFA’s many lists of rules and regulations, there is a statement which declares that any government or political organisation directly interfering with a country’s football association, national team, or anything else which may be judged by the game’s governing body to be challenging their authority over the sport, FIFA have the power to impose sanctions – bans from the international game, suspension of clubs from continental competitions, large fines – there are few avenues not open to Sepp Blatter and his colleagues.
However, whilst the theory behind this rule sounds logical, in practice it is almost impossible to carry out. Different countries have different ways of doing things, and so whilst it was possible for FIFA to threaten Nigeria with international suspension after certain players were banned by their government after a poor showing at the 2010 World Cup – a move which eventually saw the Nigerian authorities reverse the bans – there has never been any such action taken in Russia.
That is despite the direct intervention of Vladimir Putin on at least three public occasions, twice ‘encouraging’ local companies to stump up the cash to keep Siberian club Tom Tomsk in business, and then overseeing the departure of Russian Football Union chief Sergei Fursenko after a meeting following the Russian team’s lacklustre Euro 2012 campaign – a situation with clear parallels to the Nigerian incident, even if it officials rather than players were subject to punishment.
Whilst the current President’s interest in the beautiful game is debatable, his involvement is not. Terek Grozny are one of the Russian Premier League teams most often in the headlines, and not always for the right reasons, but approval and support from the Kremlin has almost certainly played a huge point in allowed the club from the Chechen capital to even exist, let alone succeed in any capacity.
Their Soviet history is, as is the case with many regional clubs outside of the republican centres – Yerevan, Tbilisi, Kyiv – mediocre. Regional tier stability and plenty of zone switching tells us almost nothing about a club which went through the day-to-day business of Soviet lower league life enjoyed and endured by hundreds of other sides, success understandably difficult to come by when representing a region both near the foot of the USSR’s wealth rankings, and with a population decimated by Stalin’s forced migration during the Second World War. Chechnya and prosperity have never gone hand in hand, but its people are proud – the latter point is something of an understatement, as more recent history shows.
When the USSR, Chechnya was one of just two regions which did not agree to adopt the new Russian constitution. The other, the Tatarstan which boasts two-time Russian champions Rubin Kazan, was eventually coaxed into the new Russian Federation by promises of greater economic and political autonomy, as well as linguistic equality in local administration and regional signage. Chechnya, on the other hand, was more complex.
An independence movement developed, claimed sovereignty under the USSR’s old rules of secession, but was rejected – Chechnya was never a separate republic under Soviet rule. With the issue still not fully resolved by 1994, and an independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria unilaterally declared, the Yeltsin administration ordered the Russian military into the region, intending to deliver his people a ‘small victorious war’ to boost his falling ratings and finally unite the Federation he controlled as violence between Chechen and Ingush threatened to spill into the rest of the Caucasus.
That small war lasted two years, and ended in Russian withdrawal after atrocities on both sides and carpet bombing of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Three years later, as Chechen insurgents launched an invasion of neighbouring Dagestan, Russian troops again moved on Grozny, this time asserting federal control and establishing a Kremlin-backed administration in the region. One of the key figures in the new government would be Ramzan Kadyrov, son of former president Akhmet, and already a cult figure in the area.
Throughout the wars, Terek ceased to participate in national championships for obvious reasons. Their home stadium destroyed, their fans’ with more important things to worry about, they only returned to competition in 2001 – even then, with the local situation less than stable, Terek played their home games some 200 miles away in Pyatigorsk.
However, with the Kremlin determined to portray Chechnya as a picture of stability and progress, Terek found themselves with an even bigger role to play. How much of their rise through the leagues can be attributed to political interference is unclear – they certainly never lacked the cash to convince Russian veterans to abandon more comfortable lives and represent Chechnya on the football field – but a dominant 2002 campaign saw them win their way into the First Division, where they came 4th at the first attempt, appearing genuine contenders for promotion.
2004 saw their moment of glory, a rags-to-riches story of a group of footballers putting aside cultural, religious and political allegiances to unite and claim the cup – Terek, champions-elect of the First Division, took the trophy with a last-minute Andrei Fedkov winner against Krylya Sovetov – completing their phoenix-like rise from the ashes of war. The details of the event – suspicions of match-fixing, the fact that no Chechen players featured for Terek, the fact that Moscow allocates Grozny the budget from which Terek are funded – were all conveniently overlooked, and Terek were and are held up as a paragon of stability in a region which is, at least on the surface, beginning to settle under the iron-fisted rule of football-mad Kadyrov and his zealously loyal followers.
After immediate relegation, Terek bounced back to the Premier League at the second time of asking, where they have acquired a reputation as one of the league’s more unpredictable teams, as much of off-field antics than their lower midtable performances. Business Bulat Chagaev invested heavily in a brief time period, bringing Dutch legend Ruud Gullit to the manager’s seat only to dismiss his after half a year in charge, and despite boasting a sizable budget, Terek are one of those sides who regularly perform beneath the lofty heights expected by their owners.
Thankfully for many of the players, club president Ramzan Kadyrov does not appear as wildly optimistic as some of his staff, and whilst the club retains a high player turnover, there have been no more unsavoury incidents at Terek than any other club in recent years. Football may forever take a back seat to politics in one of Russia’s most volatile regions, but the semblance of stability that the game brings in crucial for team and government alike. Expect big funding, big promises, and a long-term presence in the public conscious – even if the team itself often turns out below par.