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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Terek Gives Chechens a Reason to Cheer

With the hostage crisis, the ongoing military campaign and constant harassment, the Chechen community hasn't had much good news in recent months.

In soccer, however, there is something to cheer about. Only two years after its rebirth, Chechen side Terek Grozny has just been promoted to the Russian First Division, a step below the heights of the Premier League.

With three games left in the season, Terek, named after the river that runs through Chechnya, has an unbeatable 19-point lead over Dynamo Stavropol in the southern zone of the Second Division. Next season, it will move up from southern Russia to play matches all over the country, including in St. Petersburg, the Moscow suburb of Khimki, Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg.

Moscow's large Chechen diaspora is already looking forward to seeing the team.

"It means a lot for our supporters," said Dzhabrail Gakayev, the head of the Chechen Cultural Center. "We had a big tradition in soccer before the war. Terek was one of the better teams.

"If the team plays in Moscow or the Moscow region, there will be a lot of supporters -- and not only Chechens but a lot of Russians who lived in Grozny and love the team," he said.

He said up to 15,000 fans could come to games in Khimki.

That's more than Terek has ever gotten at home, as it is one of the few teams in the world that does not play in its hometown nor plans to do so in the near future.

Instead, because of continuing violence and instability in Grozny, the team plays in the Stavropol region city of Lermontov, 110 kilometers northwest of the Chechen border.

There are plans -- very optimistic plans -- to eventually return to Chechnya, but with a stadium still full of mines it is not likely to happen soon.

"They don't have their own home," said Sergei Kapustin, the Sport-Express correspondent for the North Caucasus. "But the paradox is that they are better prepared than those with a roof over their heads."

Although the team tries to downplay the situation by taking the line that there are no politics in sports, its existence and the history of soccer in Chechnya suggests otherwise.

Chechen Sports Minister Lom Ali Ibragimov, a referee in Soviet times, knows the players undergo thorough police checks during trips and might face unfair suspicion.

"Let them come and check. We have no drugs or arms," he said. "They need to check so that it [another hostage-taking crisis] doesn't happen."

He added, "After those events [in Moscow], we played against Stavropol, and there were no excesses."

None of the players -- eight of whom are Chechen -- have fought in either of the wars, club officials said. However, nearly all have lost a relative, and many have seen Russian bombing raids.

When club director Roman Sadykov, a former goalie, took three players from Chechnya to the first training session in Kislovodsk, in the Stavropol region, two years ago, the journey took 18 hours instead of the usual four. Players were stopped at every checkpoint.

Now the team -- housed in a pink BMW coach -- travels with a police escort and hasn't been stopped for a year.

The pro-Moscow Chechnya administration backs the team with 40 million rubles ($1.26 million) a year. Administration head Akhmad Kadyrov, a soccer player in his youth, is the club's president, and earlier this year the team hired coach Alexander Tereshkov from Premier League club Sokol Saratov.

Even the team's current home, Lermontov, has constant echoes of the conflict. Terek is hoping to finally move to Kislovodsk next season, although the events in Moscow did not help with negotiations, Kapustin said.

Terek was refused permission to play in Kislovodsk because of the mayor's fear that fans would import terrorism.

Despite Kadyrov's backing, the team has not come into conflict with the rebels, perhaps because soccer has always been a popular Chechen sport.

Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev himself headed the Chechen soccer federation and played a few times for Terek before he lost part of a leg in fighting. In 1998, a mujahedin World Cup was held in Grozny at the same time as the real World Cup. His one-time suggestion of a friendly match between a Chechen team and Budyonnovsk was not taken up.

How Russian fans, who are not known for their tact toward other nationalities, would react to a Terek match remains to be seen. Spartak fans recently threw bananas at Spartak's black players at a reserve game.

But Terek has already faced up to some of the most politically charged games over the past two years.

The team traveled to Mozdok, a large military base, for one game. "There were no difficulties," Mozdok trainer Sergei Zhanayev said. "Nobody even thought about it."

They also traveled to the city of Stavropol and Budyonnovsk, where Basayev took scores of people hostage in 1995.

"The game had political connotations," said Sadykov, in his understated manner. "It was the first time Chechens had been to Budyonnovsk since Basayev."

Before the game, players visited a children's school to hand out soccer balls and uniforms.

Before the match, Sadykov told his players for the first time that the result was not the most important thing and to make sure there was no trouble between the two teams. Terek won the game 1-0, and fans of both sides were cordial, Sadykov said.

With Terek prepared to travel across the country when the next season kicks off in the spring, Gakayev said he is worried about Chechen fans being harassed.

"There could be problems with police," he said. "[Fans] could provoke it. ... But I still think our fans will show they have a better culture."