This week, a tale about football – the story of the time a team from war-ravaged Chechnya came to Moscow and left with Russia's second most prestigious trophy.
In the mid-1990s, as war raged in Chechnya, Terek Grozny FC were forced to disband. Despite the continuation of the fighting, the side reformed in 2000. A mere four years after rising from the ashes, Terek lifted the Russian Cup.
The build-up to the 2004 final saw a massive security operation in Moscow. The authorities’ concerns were more than understandable. After all, it was less than a month since a terrorist blast had claimed the life of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Chechen president, during World War Two Victory Day celebrations at a stadium in Grozny.
Akhmad Kadyrov had also been Terek’s president, and his son Ramzan (then Chechen deputy prime minister, now head of the republic) had been named his replacement. Given that Kadyrov, Jr. was scheduled to attend the match, it was perhaps not unreasonable to expect another attack.
I had my doubts though. Shamil Basayev, the separatist leader who had claimed responsibility for the Victory Day bombing, was an avid football fan, and had even been the head of the Chechen Football Association in 1998. It seemed unlikely that he would target a football match. Or perhaps I was just being naïve. Still, they say Osama bin Laden is a big Arsenal fan, and I don’t see many al-Qaeda bombs at English Premier League games. Not even at the ground of their great rivals, Tottenham Hotspur.
Terek’s opponents were Krilya Sovetov, from Samara, and hot favorites. Terek were, after all, a 1st Division outfit, and Krilya were a Premier League team.
But Terek had Andrei Fedkov. A former Russian international (six caps), his career had never really taken off. Now, at the age of 32, he had the chance to lift his first trophy. Fedkov was typical of many of the ethnic Russian players who had been drafted into the Chechen side.
It was perhaps just as well though that the team wasn’t entirely made up of Chechens. Terek’s manager had once complained that the respect Chechens had for their elders could be a disadvantage on the pitch.
“I always tell them, ‘If you can see the goal - shoot! Don’t worry about if an older player is nearby. Just shoot!’”
The game began. Krilya had most of the ball, but couldn’t find the breakthrough they were after. Terek looked content to sit back and hope to snatch a goal. It was pretty tedious stuff.
Injury time. Former Dynamo Moscow midfielder Denis Kedluev picked the ball up inside Terek’s half, looked up, and seeing Fedkov unmarked, played a through ball to him. Fedkov glanced at the keeper rushing out to meet him, and, with the most delicate of touches, lobbed the ball over him, into the net.
Krilya restarted the game, but it was clear that they were finished. The team from Samara tried to go forward, but before they had managed to get a shot on target, the referee blew up.
On the pitch, it was pandemonium. The Terek players unfolded a huge banner of the late Akhmad Kadyrov, taking it on a lap of the stadium. They then grabbed Ramzan Kadyrov and began throwing him up and down in the air in celebration. Kadyrov’s security forces, numbering several thousand, have been accused of torture and abduction in the Chechen republic. He denies the allegations. I just hoped the Terek players wouldn’t drop him. One should always be careful around people who own private armies.
The rumors and whispers began after even before Terek’s Kremlin visit. Krilya Sovetov had received $7 million to throw the game, went the story. The authorities had needed to show that life in Chechnya was returning to normal, and had been willing to do so at any cost.
In a way, it made sense. The fuss made over then President Vladimir Putin receiving the victorious Terek team in the Kremlin after the final had been something quite unprecedented. Chechnya was an important project for the federal authorities and sport was just a part of it. What better than the nation’s favorite pastime to get the message across that the war had been won in Chechnya, and that, as Putin would regularly proclaim with great pomp for the next few years, only the ‘mopping up’ remained?
“Terek were on the news all the time before and after the cup victory, if you remember,” Novaya Gazeta journalist Ruslan Dubov told me. “Chechnya and football. It sounds a lot better than Chechnya and war, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“Perhaps,” sports commentator Vasily Utkin told me, “the Kremlin took advantage of the situation. It’s possible that when the team had reached the semi-final, a decision was made to make the most of the situation. But, really, you should speak to Ramzan Kadyrov about that.”
Utkin contacted the Chechen leader for me, but Kadyrov was reluctant to be interviewed by an English writer about the beautiful game.
He obviously had other things on his mind.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.