A team from Grozny in the war-torn Russian republic are on the brink of promotion to the top flight. Except, as Saul Pope explains, it's some time since they had a home game

Much of the football power in Russia is concentrated in Moscow, but the capital city’s clubs may soon have a strong rival from the most unexpected of places: Chechnya. The rising star of Russia’s sprawling first division, which from Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean spreads over ten time zones, is Terek, a team representing the troubled republic’s capital city, Grozny. Having taken the se­cond division by storm in 2002, Terek finished fourth in the first division in 2003, missing out on promotion to the Soviet premier league by just one point but at the same time finishing in their highest ever position. This is something of a miracle when you consider the fighting and instability in Chechnya, which have for a long time put sport of any nature firmly on the back-burner.

Terek first played in the Soviet league in 1958 under the name Dinamo Grozny. Much of their history during the Soviet era was fairly unspectacular, with the club spending just four seasons at the second level and the rest battling it out in lower leagues. Terek played just three seasons in the newly formed Russian league in the early Nineties before war put a halt to all sport in the region. As the situation stabilised slightly the team was re-formed in 2001, led by veterans of the Chechen football scene who returned to Grozny after several years playing for top-flight Russian teams. Within a couple of years Terek were proving more than a match for bigger teams from all over the country.

How has all of this happened? Money is undoubtedly one of the biggest factors. In their first season, $3 million (£1.7m) was made available for the running of Terek from various sources, $1m from the Chechen government’s budget, an amount that has increased by the year. This has been criticised by some as money badly spent when people in the region are still living in tents and are short of food, although the club defends this by saying that they have taken no official money aimed at reconstruction in Chechnya. Politics is also a big factor. The president of the club is Akhmad Kadyrov, who is also head of the Moscow-backed Chechen government, and orders to spend heavily on rebuilding Terek surely came from the capital.

Their success is one of the few genuinely positive things to have come out of Chechnya since the early Nineties and, according to Terek director Roman Sadykov, has been a uniting factor within the Chechen diaspora, a suggestion that things are finally getting back to normal in their homeland. At present, however, this is no more than a suggestion.

Despite claims to the contrary in Moscow, it seems that peace in the rebel republic has not yet been won. Most Chechen cities still stand in ruins and this affects Terek as much as anybody else. Grozny at present does not have a working stadium, so the team play their home matches in front of small crowds in Lermontov, near Pyatigorsk, a town in the northern Caucasus 250 kilometres away in another republic of the Russian Federation. Sadykov has said that spectators react “as if they were at the cinema”, showing no emotion‚ at Terek’s home matches. That the team have no home ground, playing matches either away or at a neutral venue, makes their success even more startling.

The Chechen war is still a source of massive tension between Russians and Chechens, and this has had an impact on Terek. The team, made up of both Chechens and ethnic Russians, have been jeered and abused at matches as far away as Khabarovsk in Russia’s far east. If the club are promoted to the premier league this problem could become more severe, as the club will be playing matches against teams with big hooligan followings such as Moscow’s CSKA, Spartak and Dinamo. Terek’s success has so far been against the odds – not many inside Chechnya even know about the team’s success and some of those who do greatly dislike the club. At the time of writing Terek are top of the first division, yet to drop a point, and in the quarter-finals of the Russian cup. For many they are already promoted. Realising this dream would perhaps represent the return of some normality to this troubled corner of the world, no matter how small a return to normality it may be.

From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month