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Chechen Revolution

March 10, 2011

Normally this would be a title more suited to my other blog, but a footballing insurgency is being plotted in the Caucasus. If you’re around my age, the word Chechen was normally followed by the suffixes ‘Warlord’ or ‘Rebel’, and the name Grozny conjured images similar to those seen in Sarajevo, Beirut or Gaza.

Here comes the history lesson. The region recognised as Chechnya is located on the north side of the Caucasus Mountains and is bordered by Russian Federal territory in all directions (Ossetia, Ingushetia, Stavropol Krai, Dagestan) apart from its southern border with Georgia. Its geographic location on the crossroads of the Middle East and Russia has resulted in it being the subject of invasions and expansionism from all directions for most of its history. During the 15th & 16th centuries the Ottoman and Safavid Empires fought for influence over the region. In an attempt to avoid Russian invasion the people of Chechnya converted to Sunni Islam to curry favour with the Turkic Ottomans in return for protection. Despite numerous rebellions, Chechnya was eventually seized by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and by the 1930’s were an autonomous republic of the Soviet Union. During the Second World War the Chechens saw the opportunity to rebel against Stalin’s expansion to the south. As a result, the Georgian despot deported the entire population of Chechnya to what is now Kazakhstan. During this process between a 3rd and a half of the entire Chechen population was killed. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Chechens were allowed to return home.

Stay with me.

1991 saw the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Chechnya was not granted official independence, which caused ethnic tensions between Chechens and the Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians who had settled in the region during their enforced exile. 1994 saw the beginning of the First Chechen War as Russian troops besieged Grozny. By the time a peace treaty was signed in 1997 up to 14,000 Chechen soldiers had been killed and a reported 100,000 Russians, which included 35,000 Russian civilians killed by Russian troops in Grozny. The persecution of a largely Muslim population was seized upon by Islamic extremists as a cause to take up arms against the West.

Bare with me now.

Saudi born Ibn al-Khattab, commander of the Mujahedeen, relocated to Chechnya to wage a violent jihad. In 1999, the al-Khattab lead militia invaded neighbouring Dagestan. The assault only lasted a month or two but claimed over 1,000 casualties. This period also saw numerous kidnappings, executions and bombings in the Chechen cause. The Russian retaliation was brutal. The Council of Europe, Amnesty International and human rights organisations have accused both sides of war crimes and the Holocaust Memorial Museum has placed Chechnya on its Genocide Watch List. A unilateral ceasefire was declared in 2005 when Chechen officials estimated that military casualties numbered 5,732 Russians and 17,391 Chechens, and civilian deaths stood at 100,000 ethnic Russians and 40,000 Chechens for both wars.

Nearly there.

Despite the ceasefire, up to 5 terrorist attacks have been attributed to Islamic extremists connected to Chechnya since 2008 claiming up to 150 lives. The latest being the Domodedov Airport Bombing in 2010 which killed 37 people. In 2003 the UN declared Grozny the most destroyed city on earth.

I think that has set the scene graphically enough, now for the football. The Chechen capital, Grozny is the home of Terek Grozny, a modest club with a modest history. Amid growing political instability in the early 90’s Terek were relegated to the 3rd tier of Russian football due to a reorganisation of the zonal league structure which saw 36 teams demoted. The following season Terek were expelled from the league due to the outbreak of the first Chechen war forcing them to disband until 2001. On their re-introduction to the league they were required to play home games in neighbouring Stavropol until 2007. They were promoted to the 2nd Division in their first season back, and finished a respectable 4th the following season. In 2004 they were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in their history scoring a record 100 points and also won the Russian Cup. 2005 would see Terek play their first games in European competition beating Lech Poznan in the 2nd qualifying round, but losing to Basel in the 1st round proper. The year would end on a sour note with relegation and a 6 point deduction for non-payment of a transfer fee. The 2007 season was celebrated with promotion back to the Premier League with a 2nd place finish. Their return to the top flight was also rewarded with a return to Grozny. The following 3 seasons have seen them consolidate in mid-table with finishes of 10th, 12th and 12th.

Now that we’re up to date, what’s the fuss? In January of this year, a certain Ruud Gullit was appointed as the new manager of little Terek, and charged with steering them to a top 8 finish. On a list of places you’d imagine Gullit turning up as a manager, Chechnya would be pretty close to the bottom. Sexy football and hideous war crimes are not natural bed fellows. When I first heard the news, my initial thought was ‘There must me money in them there Caucasus’ swiftly followed by ‘I’m giving it 6 months’. On investigating whether there was an oil rich oligarch involved or a gas company a la Zenit, it appears that the clubs owner is none other than Ramzan Kadyrov, President of Chechnya as appointed by Vladimir Putin. Putin also awarded Kadyrov the Hero of Russia medal, the highest honorary title of Russia, for his role in the Chechen Wars.

During the first war he led a unit of separatist fighters against the Russian troops, but his family defected to Moscow as the second war started. Ramzan headed up a militia with support from the FSB as they struggled for military and political authority. Despite being credited with an improvement in law and order, regenerating Grozny and a more productive economy, his past is proving hard to leave behind. He has survived an assassination attempt, a sex scandal, been personally implicated in several tortures and murders, his militias have been accused of countless human rights abuses and war crimes, and he’s publically stated his approval of honour killings. As far as club owners go he makes Sam Hammam look like the offspring of Mother Theresa and Gandhi.

On the plus side he’s given the green light for a new 30,000 capacity stadium to be built for Terek. Swings and roundabouts. Upon checking my Twitter feed this morning I discover that Gullit has made his first ‘marquee’ signing. The capture of Mbark Boussoufa for a fee in the region of £10m is a huge coup for Terek. The name might not get the pulses of the average football fan racing, but he’s a very good player with a top class pedigree. Born in Amsterdam, he is a product of the famed Ajax academy. He was spotted and bought by Chelsea at the age of 17 and placed in their youth set-up. Not quite reaching the standard required he was released to KAA Gent in Belgium at 19, and proceeded to score 13 goals and notch up 21 assists in 50 games from midfield. In two seasons he won the Belgian Golden Shoe, Belgian Footballer of the Year, Belgian Young Footballer of the Year and Belgian Ebony Shoe. Anderlecht were suitably impressed, and signed the 21-year-old for £3m in 2006. In 193 games for Anderlecht he scored 53 goals and 80 assists, 2 league titles, 3 cup winner’s medals, and ended last season with a clean sweep of personal awards, including the Player of the Year ahead of Belgian wunderkind Romelu Lukaku. Despite being born in Holland, he chose to play for Morocco and has scored 3 goals in 19 games.

It was also rumoured this morning that Terek were ready to offer Diego Forlan a £7m contract to be their next signing. This hasn’t been confirmed, but stranger things have happened in football. Like what? I imagine you’re asking. Well, just up the road to Grozny, over the border in Dagestan, Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos has rolled up at the mighty Anzhi Makhachkala. Who they be? After being formed in 1991 Anzhi were promoted to the 2nd Division where they stayed until being promoted as champions in 1999. In their debut season in the Russian top flight they finished in fourth and qualified for the UEFA Cup, and were also Cup runners-up losing on penalties to Lokomotiv Moscow. Anzhi drew Rangers in the UEFA Cup the following season and lost narrowly 1-0, playing in Poland due to the ongoing situation in Chechnya. Unfortunately they were also relegated and remained in the 2nd Division until 2009. They finished last season one place ahead of Grozny in 11th. At the beginning of this year Makhachkala were purchased by Suleyman Kerimov, a Dagestan born businessman worth a reported $5.5b. In stark contrast to his Chechen counterpart, Kerimov is something of a philanthropist and has donated more than $60m to charity through his Foundation, primarily for community and youth projects.

As well as newly appointed captain Roberto Carlos, Anzhi have further proved their ambition by picking up highly rated Corinthians midfielder Jucilei for around £8m, former Betis, PSV and Brazil striker Diego Tardelli for £4m, Brazilian centre back Joao Carlos from Genk for £3m, and local boy and former Terek striker Shamil Lakhiyalov for £4m.

The Russian Premier League kicks off this weekend with Grozny at home to Zenit, followed by Rubin Kazan the following weekend. Anzhi begin on Saturday with a home game against FK Krasnodar, and take on Zenit a week later. With the backdrop of war crimes, sex scandals, and Gullit’s ego in one camp, a billionaire with a conscience and Brazilian superstars in the other, with both republics linked by Islamic extremists led by an Arab warlord and accusations of false flag operations, conspiracy theories, the FSB, Alexander Litvinenko and exiled oil tycoons, what could possibly go wrong?

The situation at Grozny looks like an accident waiting to happen. Gullit is a big name, but his management career hasn’t been a great success to date, and his last job at LA Galaxy ended amid reports of clashes of personality. Ramzan Kadyrov is not a man to get on the wrong side of, I can’t imagine diplomacy is one of his strong points. If Gullit manages to keep his job for the entire season, I sincerely hope Terek finish in the top 8, for his sake.

On the other hand Anzhi looks a far more stable working environment. In Gadzhi Gadzhiev they have a Dagestani man in charge with a wealth of experience, one of Brazil’s best young players and best old players, and the 136th richest man in the world splashing the cash. With the current trend for cash rich clubs in the former Soviet Union such as Zenit and Rubin Kazan in Russia and Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine to blend local talent with more exotic names from South America, Africa and Asia, there’s a successful blueprint for Anzhi to follow. This could be an intriguing season in Russia and well worth keeping an eye on.

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