Ingushetia is not a part of the world renowned for its footballing prowess. If it is mentioned in the news at all, it is in relation to Islamist insurgency, ethno-religious struggles, and a growing sense of independence and injustice at its treatment from the Moscow-powered ‘Centre.’ Most references to the region in the West are in relation to the two Chechen wars, with few showing an interest in exploring or understanding the nature of the area.
Within Russia, it is developing a region as one of the problem places, inextricably tied to Chechnya and Dagestan at the heart of the Islamic separatist movement. Once a subject of invasion from it Chechen neighbours, the region now struggles with its own Islamist attacks – regional president Yunus-bek Yevkurov was injured in a suicide attack not long after succeeding ex-KGB Murat Zyazikov – human rights violations and high levels of corruption. For many Slavic Russian its people have been painted in the same broad brushstrokes as anyone from a Muslim background – the ‘immigrant from the Caucasus’, a hypocritical paradox almost unique to the Russian nation.
On the sporting front, the same stereotypes apply, and not without reason – the Chechen people have long been revered for their prowess on the wrestling mat, and so too the Ingush have enjoyed a good level of success in the sport. Look towards team sports however, and you will find very few Ingush representing Russia in any of the mainstream events. Football is no exception, and so it came to the surprise of many when last year’s Second Division South season turned out the way it did. Regarded by few as promotion challengers and even fewer as title winners, it soon became apparent that Angusht – the side hailing from Nazran, former Ingush capital before the transfer of duties to Magas – were not about to disappear without a fight against bigger or more well-backed sides.
Under the guidance of club legend Timur Zangiev, a man with almost 400 league appearances for the green-shirted side, Angusht battled away impressively, boasting an imperious home record and taking plenty of points on the road, so often the stumbling block for Russian provincial clubs. Still very much in contention at the winter break, Zangiev’s men lost just once in their last 12 games, winning their last eight to pip Chernomorets Novorossiysk to the title by virtue of their head-to-head record. With the Black Sea club stunned, having expected promotion, it was the Ingush club who took the spot in the second tier.
As ever with newly-promoted clubs, there were issues over whether or not Angusht would actually get to play in the FNL. Licensing rules looked to be a sticking point, with conspiracy theorists suggesting that the league would rather have Chernomorets make the step up, but eventually criteria were met and Ingushetia once again had a football team competing on the national stage – Angusht were the last club there in 2006, and finished rock bottom before folding and being reborn in the amateur ranks as FC Nazran.
Zangiev left the club following promotion, allowing an ‘outsider,’ former Russia u21, Alania, Tom and five-time Dinamo Stavropol boss Boris Stukalov to step in from Biolog Novokubansk, bringing a wealth of experience to the role after struggling to 9th with his former side. With time as an assistant at Dinamo Moscow and Rotor Volgograd in addition to his wide-ranging managerial work, Stukalov represents a shrewd move to try and bridge the gap between second and third tiers. A 1-1 home draw with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk on the opening day of the season seemed to prove the point.
However, Angusht’s geography and Ingushetia’s public perception, combined with a budget below every one of their relegation rivals, have since combined to halt their survival ambitions. Since that opening day day, Angusht have suffered six consecutive defeats, results including a 2-0 home reverse at fellow nely-promoted side Luch-Energia Vladivostok, a handing Torpedo Moscow their only win of the season so far. In a division which this year will see four sides relegated, the six point gap which has already formed between Angusht and safety looks to be enough to send them back down to the regional leagues.
A look around the squad tells you why. First of all is the reliance on local players – even released talent from higher up the league do not want to uproot for a life in the unstable climes of Nazran. name such as Khazbulat Khamkoev, Seyt-Daut Garakoev, Abdulkhamid Akhilgov and Aslan Dashaev all speak of the Caucasus and their foothills, the overwhelming majority of the squad born in Ingushetia, a few more from Chechnya and Dagestan, with only one or two from further north.
Secondly is inexperience. When a side is promoted, one of the first tasks is usually to draft in veterans of the new league, players who know the level and are able to coax the newcomers into the competition. At Angusht, no fewer than 12 of the first team players have never played for another professional side, with more still having just a handful of sides at other southern clubs under their belts. Add their youth into the mix – of the 23-strong squad, only seven have a birthday before 1989 – and the recipe for relegation begins to take shape.
Stukalov’s work is cut out for him this year. His ragged band of youthful locals are not yet ready for the rigours of second tier football, with both the higher skill levels and demands of travelling proving too much for Angusht to take. With only seven games of the season gone, it looks almost certain that their stay in the FNL will be a short one.
What Angusht must now be wary of is disappearing altogether, as their predecessors did in 2006. The club is already poor, the region not enjoying the same government subsidies afforded to neighbouring Chechnya and therefore Terek. Their average attendance is one of the lowest in the league at just 1,800, and it seems unlikely that their struggling players are ever going to demand a transfer fee to inject much-needed cash into the club.
With outdated facilities, an outmatched squad and outnumbered on the terraces, the figures do not paint a pretty picture for fans of the Nazran club. Ingushetia may have bigger problems that football, and talk of a successful club uniting the region may be naive and idealistic, but for the club to fade altogether would be genuine concern, not only for the Ingush but for the state of the lower league game across Russia. While Angusht have risen from the ashes once before, the relegation-bound club would rather not be forced to do the same again.