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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War Won't Stop Dagestan's Anzhi

Russia's top soccer clubs and their fans have been looking nervously over their shoulder this year, watching a team called Anzhi steamroll its way to the first division title and the premier league.

Anzhi is a talented club, but it's not their defense or attack that has anyone worried - it's the team's hometown, Makhachkala, the capital of the restive republic of Dagestan.

Not normally known for its soccer prowess, Dagestan has found football fever this year with the unexpected success of Anzhi. Packed stadiums have reverberated with chants of "Da-ge-stan, Da-ge-stan," and demand for tickets is so great that the club hopes to build an extra stand for their premier debut.

But with the war in neighboring republic Chechnya - just 60 kilometers from Makhachkala - raging on with no end in sight, some fans might find themselves wishing for first division foes in Tyumen or Chita instead.

Earlier this year Dagestan was the scene of intense fighting when Chechen rebels invaded the republic. More than 200 Russian soldiers and up to 1,000 Chechen rebels died in the subsequent fighting. The danger of kidnapping has made it a virtual no-go area for foreigners.

"We'll go, but it won't be easy. It's a tough situation in Dagestan," said Andrei, a CSKA Moscow fan. "Meeting a man with a gun is ordinary. Who can say that he won't use it for the love of Anzhi?"

"They're already so used to automatic machine guns in Dagestan that they view it as part of the scenery and no more than that," Sport Express newspaper wrote recently in an article discussing whether Anzhi should play in the premier league.

Valery Petrakov, who traveled to Makhachkala this season with three other Torpedo Zil fans, said they had no trouble. "Everything was OK for us, but I don't know what will happen when Spartak goes there," he said, referring to that club's traditionally large entourage and infamously rowdy fans.

The local government and the league, which help finance the club, stress that visitors will be safe. "There's no problem," Anzhi coach Gadzhi Gadzhiyev said in an interview following a recent match in Moscow. "We have good security."

Anzhi isn't the only team to keep soccer alive in the North Caucasus. One Russian premier-league club, Alania Vladikavkaz, already plays within 60 kilometers of Grozny, in the capital of the North Ossetian republic. Russian champion in 1995, Alania even hosted England's Liverpool in a UEFA Cup match that year during the first Chechen war.

That match passed peacefully, but a series of explosions in Vladikavkaz have made the stadium less appealing. Following a bomb this spring that went off within walking distance of the stadium and killed 60 people, an international match between Russian and Andorra was moved to Moscow.

This didn't stop Spartak Moscow from considering Alania's invitation to stage next week's Uefa Cup third-round match against Leeds in Vladikavkaz. Despite the appeal of the warmer Caucasian climes, Leeds took only hours to state their preference to play in subzero Moscow temperatures.

It could have been touchier. Up until 1994 - two years after Chechnya had declared its independence - Erzu Grozny still played in the Russian second division. The team was solid, coming in third in 1993 and enjoying a formidable reputation at home.

For visiting teams, playing in front of Grozny's traditionally well-armed crowds could be distracting. According to Moscow lore, the team was also reputed to put pressure on the referee. "They used to put a gun to the ref's head and say, 'You're going to referee well today, aren't you?'" Andrei claimed.

Not surprisingly, Grozny remained undefeated at home that season, although many of their victories were technical ones, as opposing teams were too intimidated to turn up. Anzhi remained undefeated at home this year as well.