FC Terek Grozny: War, football, hatred and controversy in North Caucasus

Armed conflict has always been a part of Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism. This has affected human lives and football. Chechnya’s football club, FC Terek Grozny, is no exception. Arghya Lahiri takes a look at the rise of this club from devastation, and discusses the controversial Kadyrov family who made that possible and revived Terek amidst the chaos and destruction happening around the club.

Terek and the Chechen War

What do you think about if we take the following names: Chechnya, Caucasus, Grozny? You may think about fearsome warriors, beautiful mountains, and oil fields. Or you may think about the deadly conflict between Chechnya and Moscow that devastated Grozny (its capital) and other parts of Chechnya. If you are aware about current incidents then you may remember that the Tsarnaev brothers (the duo behind the Boston Marathon bombing), were from a Chechen family. However, we can bet that the name of FC Terek Grozny will probably never come to your mind.

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Terek was established in 1946 as FC Dinamo Grozny. The contribution of Chechens in the early part of the club’s history is highly debatable as almost the entire Chechen population was driven out of Chechnya into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other surrounding areas. This was because Chechens were accused of collaborating with Nazis during Germany’s Soviet campaign in WWII. As a result, important positions and jobs in Grozny were usually taken by ethnic Russians. The Chechens started coming back to Chechnya since 1957 during the de-Stalinization era of Krushchev. In 1948, this club’s name was changed to Neftyanik, and, in 1958, it was renamed Terek after a Chechen river. In Russian “Terek” stands for“fearsome” or “terrible”. During the Soviet era, Terek participated regularly in Russian Federation and Soviet All-Union competitions. Things started changing after the collapse of Soviet Union in early 90s. Like certain other republics, Chechnya also wanted its independence. However Russian president Boris Yeltsin considered Chechnya to be an integral part of Russia (because he wanted to retain control over the Northern Caucasian oilfields). In 1994, the first Chechen war broke out between Chechen separatists (under Chechen president, Dzhokhar Dudayev) and Moscow.As a result, Grozny became a war zone. Terek had to be disbanded. For two years, Russian military suffered heavy losses, and in 1996 the war ended with a peace treaty. The Chechens took control of the region (Chechen Republic of Ichkeria). However, the winners had suffered huge losses too. In 1997, FC Terek was resurrected for a while before the Second Chechnya War broke out in 1999. Different Mujahidin groups from different parts of the Islamic world helped the Chechens. Compared to the first war, this one turned out to be much more devastating for Chechnya.More than 50,000 people were killed. The war officially ended in 2000 and Moscow took control of the region. (However, it is to be noted that army operation continued in this area till 2002, and Russia pulled out most of its army only after a ceasefire was called in 2009) During these six years Grozny was bombed in such a way that in 2003 the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth. Terek’s stadium was also in poor condition after the bombing campaign. Later, the Russians put a tank regiment in the stadium. Soldiers used the wood of the stadium terrace to light fires. There were numerous craters on the football pitch. During the Chechen conflict, many Terek players left the country and joined different Eastern European clubs. A few players even joined separatist forces to fight the Russians. Others just tried to save themselves and their families from shelling and “clean-up” operations undertaken by Russians. Some players fled to villages in the mountains.However, in the later part of the conflict, even remote villages were not spared and were bombed heavily. During the years between two wars, Chechnya became a place of criminal activities, gang wars, smuggling and Islamic hardliners (who tried imposing the Shariat law on Chechen people). Grozny and other parts of Chechnya often saw armed conflicts between the Russian Army and separatist wings till 2009. Car explosions and shootouts were considered normal. People who were trying to play and practice football had to face many obstacles and life-threatening situations quite often.

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Rebuilding Terek

In 2001, Terek was revived after a long time. However, war-torn Grozny did not have the proper infrastructure for a football club. So Terek had to set up their base in Kislovodsk, Stavropol Krai, around 250 Km away from the Chechnya border. However, local authorities refused to let them play league matches as they were afraid of Chechen supporters. So, Terek had to play their home matches in Cherkessk—100 Km from Kislovodsk.Between 2002 and 2007, Terek played at the small Beshtau Stadium in Lermontov and the Central Stadium in Pyatigorsk. In 2008, they got the permission from Russian FA to play in Grozny. The old Soviet-era Dinamo Stadium was reconstructed with 10,100 seats and artificial turf in just two months.It was named after Sultan Bilimkhanov, who was deputy speaker of the Chechen Parliament and was killed in a car accident in 2006.

To build the team, the club authority reassembled players who had left the country during the war(s) and were living in places like Israel and Ukraine. They also got players from Grozny and other places in Chechnya. Some of these players had fought for the Chechens during the conflict. They were either mentally weak or wanted revenge. Many of them had seen their near ones die and their houses blown up in front of their eyes. Most of these players were in their 30s.

During this early rebuilding phase, the person who helped Terek most was Akhmat Kadyrov. A fan of Terek since his childhood, Akhmat was a Chechen separatist in the first Chechen war. However, before the start of the second Chechen war, he had changed sides when he became critical of the extreme nature of Wahhabism and turned a Moscow loyalist. When Russia got their authority back after the second Chechen war, Akhmat was rewarded by Moscow. He became the president of the Chechen Republic of Russia and helped Kremlin run their policies in Chechnya. He became the president of the club and, with the help of sports minister Khaidar Alkhanov, funded Terek. With the help of Moscow, Chechnya’s government donated 1 million pounds and some property assets to the club. Other wealthy Chechens like Bulat Chagaev, who became the vice-president of the club later, also made significant investments in Terek. Rebuilding Terek became a symbol of rebuilding Chechnya and its capital Grozny.

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After the death of Akhmat in 2004, his son Ramzan Kadyrov became the president of Chechnya and FC Terek Grozny. Like his father, he was also a loyalist of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Ramzan invested a lot in this rebuilding process. He started bringing more foreign players from premier teams like CSKA Sofia and Dinamo Bucharest, and investing millions of rubles in the club.Cameroonian footballer Guy Stephane Essame, who played for Terek Grozny from 2008 to 2012, founded FC Lotus-Terek Yaoundé which is a feeder team of FC Terek Grozny. In 2011, Ramzan finished building a 30,000-seater stadium in compliance with UEFA standards in Grozny for Terek, which cost around 280 million dollars. He named it after his father Akhmat. Three months before the opening of Akhmat Arena, he brought an all-star Brazilian team comprising Romario, Dunga, and Bebeto to play an exhibition match. Ramzan himself played in that match. His team lost the match 4-6. On the day the stadium was inaugurated on 11May 2011, another match was held, where Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Fabian Barthez, Robbie Fowler,Steve McManaman, Christian Vieri, Rinat Dasaev, and Alessandro Costacurta played for an all-star team. They played against a team named Kavkaz. Ramzan was part of the latter, and scored a hat-trick (some say he was allowed to score the hat-trick). In January 2011, he appointed former Dutch international player Ruud Gulit as manager of FC Terek Grozny. However, after six months, he was sacked allegedly due to his “party lifestyle”. Official statement, though, cited the reason as a run of poor results. In 2012, Terek organized their first international football tournament, where Ukrainian club Metalist Kharkiv defeated Romanian club Rapid Bucharest in the final.

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Success of Terek

In 2001, when they were rebuilt, Terek got the chance to play in the Second League of South Zone in 2001. They finished fifth from the top that season. In 2002, Terek won the zonal tournament. In 2003, they got a chance to play in the Russian first Division. Unfortunately, a draw in the final round match against Kuban pushed them down to fourth spot. However, in 2004, Terek topped the First Division and found their place in the Russian Premier League. This was a historic season for Terek as they went on to set quite a few records.

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Terek secured the top spot with seven rounds to go before the end of the season. They also became the first team ever to get 100 points during a season. Their victorious run amounted to 21 undefeated games. They also won the 2003–04 Russian Cup, defeating FC Krylya Sovetov Samara in the final held at Lokomotiv Stadium, Moscow. Andrei Fedkov scored the only goal during injury time. Thus, Terek became the first team in Russia to win this tournament from the first division and the first Russia cup winner that was not from either Moscow or St. Petersburg. This win gave them a spot in the qualifying stage of 2004–05 UEFA Cup. An injury-afflicted Terek fought well against the Polish club, Lech Poznan, during the first qualifying match held at the Moscow Dynamo Stadium.They missed a penalty, and a goal was disallowed. However, in the 91st minute,Dmitry Khomukha scored an important goal from a terrific solo run and  pass of Musa Mazaev. In their away match at Municipal Stadium Poznan, they defended very well, and Terek’s Andrei Fedkov scored the only goal of the match at the 82nd minute.The result of the first leg match was 1–1 in the first round against Swiss club FC Basel at Moscow.But at Basel’s St. Jacob Park,Terek lost by 2–0 and their wonderful journey in the European tournament ended. Their first Russian Premier League campaign in 2005 was not a memorable one and Terek were relegated as most of their players lacked any experience of playing in the top division. In 2007, they got the second spot in the First Division League and returned to the Russian Premier League. Since 2008, however, they have been playing in the Russian Premier League and have never been relegated. So far their best performance in the league has been in the 2012–13 season when they finished in the eighth spot. It is a testimony to their success that two of their players—Oleg Ivanov and Igor Lebedenko—were selected for the Russian national team, and another, Magomed Mitrishev, was handed his Russian U21 debut. In September 2012, Terek won the Republic of Turkey Cup by defeating Sevaspor 4–2. Incidentally, this match happened to be the first international game for the Grozny team that was played in the Akhmat Arena.

Russian Premier League Table 2015-2016 Season - Updated till 02-Jan 2016
Russian Premier League Table 2015-2016 Season – Updated till 02-Jan 2016 [Source – ESPN]

Controversy, a partner of Terek

After rising from the ashes, FC Terek Grozny have always been surrounded by controversy. In other parts of Russia, outside Chechnya, Chechens are still known as “bandits”. And since Russia’s loss in the first Chechen campaign, ethnic or Slavic Russians have started hating Chechens more than ever before. An influx of Chechen refugees in Russian towns and terrorist activities by Chechens in Russian cities have increased this hatred. Now they are no more than “smugglers”, “terrorists”, and “kidnappers” to the Russian people. As a result, these Chechen clubs and their supporters have always faced hostile situations when they play away matches. Extreme Right wing and Neo Nazi supporters often give Nazi salutes in these matches. A large number of club supporters from small to major Russian clubs like CSKA Moscow, Rubin Kazan and Zenit St. Pietersberg have refused to attend the home matches of Chechen clubs. In a match against FC Terek Grozny in Petrovsky Stadium in St.Petersburg, Zenit supporters once burnt a Chechen flag. Supporters of Moscow-based clubs have shouted slogans supporting Russia and taunting the North Caucasians. In turn, Caucasian fans have sometimes angered the ethnic Russians by chanting separatist slogans. When Terek got the chance to play in their own city Grozny, many clubs and players were reluctant to play there due to security reasons. Outside Grozny, other home matches generally do not have more than 50% audience attendance.

Another controversy that has surrounded Terek since their rebirth is about their godfathers, the Kadyrov family. Many hardliner Chechens were angry when Akhmet Kadyrov changed sides before the second Chechen war. As a result of this, he was killed in a bomb explosion at Dinamo Stadium in Grozny in 2004. Ramzan Kadyrov is also a controversial figure.

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Most Chechen people are extremely religious Muslims. Kadyrov encourages them to impose Shariat Law in Chechnya as much as possible with his iron fist and the Special Police. His private army, Kadyrovtsy, has been accused of being involved in a recent Ukrainian armed conflict. The way he spent money on Terek in a poor Caucasus region (where other developments were more needed) was heavily criticized. In 2011, he resigned from his position as Terek’s President to avoid any accusation of mixing politics with football from UEFA. However, Ramzan still holds the position of Honorary President of Terek and he hardly misses any home match. When Terek got the chance to play in Grozny, it was rumoured that Putin had put pressure on Russian FA to allow them to play there. Ramzan is also allegedly involved in the disappearance and murder of many social activists, human rights activists, and politicians. The Human Rights Watchand Amnesty International have accused him in many such cases.

The game is still beautiful

Ramzan said once that the Chechen people needed both “the bread and spectacles” to live a happy life. While war, destruction, gang wars, and other notorious activities made Grozny a hell, Akhmat and Ramzan gave them a reason to be happy and proud with a football team of their own. Many people, after losing everything in their life in those years, find happiness in a football match of FC Terek Grozny, and when Terek wins, that happiness defeats every adversities of life. That is what football is all about—conquering every pain and struggle of life through the beautiful game. Here football and FC Terek Grozny are symbols of a journey to a wonderful future leaving behind a horrific past. They stand for the hopes and dreams of millions.

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