Once aligned, stars fade for North Caucasus soccer
Six months ago, Russia’s troubled North Caucasus had a hope - soccer.
Against a regular drumbeat of suicide bombings and brutal government reprisals, there were suddenly positive stories coming out of the region.
A team of world stars led by triple Champions League winner Samuel Eto’o had signed on to Dagestan team Anzhi Makhachkala, where they started putting up a serious fight against some of Europe’s most storied clubs.
Now that dream is dead. The stars have all left Anzhi, and the club has not won a single game in the Russian league this season. Nearby Terek Grozny, the sporting symbol for war-torn Chechnya, is doing little better.
Finding out who killed the North Caucasus’ soccer dream is difficult and inextricably linked with Russia’s complex, ancient ethnic rivalries.
Since the Soviet era, soccer has been a proxy warfield for Russia’s inner tensions. Then, the victories of Ukrainian teams over the Kremlin’s favored Moscow clubs were cheered on by the underground independence movement.
Today, the big divide is between teams from the mostly Muslim North Caucasus and the rest of Russia. At a typical match, Caucasus fans might anger Russians with separatist slogans, while nationalist-minded Russian fans hurl back racist insults at the darker-skinned opposition.
Within the Caucasus, things get even more tangled. Despite hailing from the Muslim heartland of Dagestan, Anzhi supporters get on great with the mostly-Christian fans of Alania Vladikavkaz, but not with the Chechen Muslim fans of Terek.
Relations between Alania’s supporters and those of nearby Angusht are so bad that police had to use an armored personnel carrier to rescue trapped Alania fans from a riot at one recent away game and transport them not just away from the stadium, but out of the entire region.
Into this heady mix of ethnic and sporting rivalries came Suleiman Kerimov, a billionaire senator and banker whose numerous businesses were a veritable goldmine - indeed, he was even the part-owner of actual goldmines.
Kerimov’s money transformed the entire landscape of soccer not just in the North Caucasus but worldwide. With Kerimov’s millions pouring into Anzhi, Cameroonian striker Eto’o briefly become the highest-paid player in history, but the entire wage market was disrupted as savvy agents worldwide hinted at interest from Anzhi to scare other clubs into giving out lucrative contracts.
On the field, success for the Caucasus teams took a while to come, but soon Anzhi was rivaling well-known English teams like Newcastle and Liverpool in European competition.
There was one catch, though - Anzhi was allowed to play Russian league games at home, but the North Caucasus was deemed too dangerous for foreign clubs to visit, so they had to play European matchups in faraway Moscow. Which, incidentally, was where all Anzhi’s imported stars insisted on living anyway.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, Chechnya’s Terek was starting to worry other Russian teams both on the field, finishing eighth in the 2012-2013 season, and off it, with unpredictable and often intimidating antics by the man in charge of the organization, the republic’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
At one game last season, Kadyrov raged over the stadium public address system that the referee was “bought,” then confronted the unlucky official after the game.
Still, Anzhi was peaceful. Then, at the start of August, something changed.
Kadyrov slashed the club’s budget for no apparent reason, sparking a fire sale of star players unlike anything world soccer had seen before. Eto’o went to Chelsea, others to Anzhi’s Russian rivals.
Why this happened is still unclear. Some thought Kerimov had found another interest, as millionaires do, others that he was fed up that Anzhi wasn’t ruling the world as soon as he’d hoped. Since then, however, Kerimov’s main source of funding has all but collapsed. He was forced to sell his stake in potash major Uralkali after being wanted on charges related to the collapse of a potash union based in Belarus.
As for the teams, Anzhi has not won a Russian Premier League game since the stars left, and is on the way to relegation. Chechnya’s always-unstable Terek has just one win this season after self-combusting for no clear reasons.
And the North Caucasus is back to its usual pattern of negative news, bombs and grinding poverty, its fleeting moment of hope on the soccer field long gone.