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As Russia Rolls In World Cup, Chechen Cheers Are Muted

Russian midfielder Aleksandr Golovin (right) and Saudi Arabian defender Muhammad Al-Breik vie for the ball during their opening World Cup match, which Russia won 5-0 on June 14.

With Russian hosting its first-ever World Cup soccer championship and its low-ranked national team faring well in the early matches, the country is in the grips of soccer fever.

After Russia beat Egypt 3-1 on June 20 to virtually guarantee itself a spot in the second round of the competition, the country erupted in flag waving and a cacophony of honking horns and patriotic songs.

"Our players really showed how the game should be played," one fan in St. Petersburg told Reuters.

But there was at least one region of Russia where the reaction was noticeably muted. In Chechnya, which routinely gives President Vladimir Putin more than 90 percent of its votes, according to official figures, and which in 2012 actually posted 99.8 percent for Putin, many fans were pulling for Egypt.

Chechens, who are predominantly Muslim, also tended to cheer for Russia's Saudi opponents in the tournament's opening match on June 14. Russia won that encounter by a convincing score of 5-0.

"Joy doesn't last long," Artur Dzhamalov, anticipating the reaction in Russia once its team meets traditional powerhouses like Brazil and Germany, noted to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.

One Grozny sportswriter who asked to be identified only as Magomed said Chechens have been reluctant to root for Russian teams in international competitions for at least the last 20 years. He attributed the hostility to the two bitter wars that Russia waged in Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s.

"In the depths of our souls, we are very offended because of those two wars," Magomed told RFE/RL. "In addition, the Russian authorities use 'ultrafan' groups to beat down people from the Caucasus from time to time. And, of course, no one feels like backing what is really a very weak team."

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov at the opening World Cup match between Russia and Saudi Arabia in Moscow on June 14.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov at the opening World Cup match between Russia and Saudi Arabia in Moscow on June 14.

After the wars in Chechnya, Russia installed first former Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov and, later, his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, to clamp down on the restless region. The younger Kadyrov is uberloyal to Putin and has called himself a "foot soldier" of the president. However, his rule has been characterized by compelling reports of rampant human rights abuses -- including arbitrary detentions, torture, and unsolved disappearances and killings.

In conversations with RFE/RL, numerous Chechen soccer fans acknowledged that they were rooting for Russia to lose, with many indicating that doing so was a sort of "silent protest" in a region where people are afraid to express nonconformist views.

"My whole family is rooting against Russia," said Alikhan, a student at Chechnya State University, who asked that his identity be protected. "And not just when it comes to soccer."

Khasan Dagayev, who has followed sports closely since the 1970s, says the people of Chechnya used to be some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Soviet teams in international competitions. Back then, he added, Soviet soccer players were practically national heroes in Chechnya.

"In the Soviet period, we felt like full-fledged citizens, with all the normal rights and obligations," Dagayev said. "But now the Russian government picks and chooses among the peoples of the country."

"There is a huge wall between us and the authorities," he added.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL North Caucasus Service correspondent Ruslan Isayev