Even by Russian standards, Terek Grozny are an unpredictable team. Perhaps the embodiment of a club which represents more than just a collection of players, they stand for the whole of Chechnya and the Caucasus against what they see as an oppressive establishment in Moscow, generating an ethno-political struggle with tensions growing to breaking point in the aftermath of the two Chechen Wars.
On the other hand, they also represent one of the more obvious attempts by the Russian government to show a stabilising hand in the volatile region. A famous run which saw them lift the Russian Cup in 2004 was dismissed by many as being stage-managed by the authorities, a 1-0 win over Krylya Sovetov in the final seen as a thinly-veiled propaganda exercise to highlight the rebuilding process in the Chechen capital. There remain plenty today who resent the North Caucasus’ generous subsidies from central government, with Terek seen as part of a regime benefiting from perceived unfairness in the national budget.
Not only do the Grozny club represent two sides of a highly controversial coin, they are also inextricably linked to one of the most famous men in Russia. Son of deceased war hero Akhmat, who switched sides in the conflict before being killed in a bomb attack at Terek’s old Dinamo stadium, Ramzam Kadyrov became president of the Chechen republic at a young age, developing a cult of personality and ruling with an iron fist – journalists go missing, and internal feuds are often settled by visits by his own de facto army which has become known as the Kadyrovtsy.
Along with allegations of human rights violations and blatant disregard for international law, Kadyrov has also succeeded in positioning himself in the pocket of the Putin regime. His long-term rule in Chechnya is held up by the governing powers as a symbol of stability in the region, whilst outside investment in business and infrastructure has seen the low economic base grow substantially over the past few years. Grozny is being marketed as a changed city as safe as any other, and Kadyrov’s strong leadership and close relationship to central government is a key facet of the policy. For as long as he proves useful to the state, it is likely that blind eyes will continue to be turned to the more dubious aspects of his leadership.
With Terek and Kadyrov therefore both closely linked to the policies of Chechen development, it is little surprise to see the two parties combined. A known lover of football, Kadyrov has rubbed shoulders with stars of the world game, past legends being paid handsome fees to fly into Grozny for all-star matches which feature the local leader himself. Names such as Diego Maradona have stepped foot on the Grozny pitch, and each time Kadyrov’s script is written to allow him to steal the show.
Last weekend however, Kadyrov crossed a line which had previously been out of bounds for the controversial leader. His presidency of the club ended several months ago, but he is a regular guest at Terek’s home games in the stadium named in honour of his late father. Perhaps the team’s most famous cheerleader his presence has been a constant as Terek first established themselves in the Premier League and then rose up the table into their current position as European contenders.
This season, the management of former Spartak boss Stanislav Cherchesov has revolutionised the Chechen outfit, turning them into a side both hard to beat and dangerous in attack. At the minute they sit 6th in the Premier League table, just six points behind a stuttering Anzhi side in 2nd and a single point off the final European qualification spot currently occupied by Kuban. Their home game on Sunday against Rubin, two points further back, could have proved crucial in the race to Europe.
The match, perhaps unsurprisingly for one involving a Rubin side who have made a name for themselves at home and abroad for their resolute defensive style, teetered on a knife-edge, the score remaining goalless to half time and well into the second period. Just minutes from the end of the match, with the game still deadlocked, referee Mikhail Vilkov produced a second yellow card for full back Rizvan Utsiev, leaving Terek a man down and without their captain for the closing moments.
Kadyrov took offence to the decision, unable to accept an earlier decision not give the home side a penalty and now a red card for his club’s captain. Instead of seething quietly – a skill the Chechen leader is yet to master- he grabbed the microphone for the Akhmat-Arena’s PA system, declaring to the 24,000 in attendance that the referee had been bribed by the visitors, along with a couple of insults hurled in the direction of the official. It has been reported that he later confronted Vilkov in his dressing room after the game.
Kadyrov has since apologised for his actions, but not to Vilkov, who he insists is corrupt. The damage, however, seems to have been done. Terek have been fined a laughable 200,000 roubles (around £4,000) and ordered to play their next home game against Zenit on neutral ground, with the likes of Makhachkala, Vladikavkaz and Nalchik all raised as possibilities.
Whilst it is the Terek faithful who will suffer for their president’s fury, the incident could continue to develop – the club are appealing the decision, and there are rumours that they may even boycott the game if they are not allowed the right of home advantage. The fine could be raised if the appeal is unsuccessful, but simple money will not harm Kadyrov. Further punishment for the fans who are innocent of all bar cheering his outburst, and potentially lost points for a club on the verge of European qualification could, however, be far more damaging in the long term. If Kadyrov cannot learn to swallow his pride in due course, Cherchesov’s fine management may yet be in vain.