No country has gone longer between World Cup appearances than Peru, who return to soccer’s biggest stage in Russia after a gap of 36 years, whereas Egypt’s last appearance at the quadrennial event was 28 years ago. Obviously, football fans from these two nations are excited on supporting their national teams who have managed to make it to the World Cup after a long, agonising wait.
Every evening, they crowd into FIFA Fan Fest Zone at Moscow’s busy Red Square and lead the celebrations. Peruvians and Egyptians far outnumber most other fans including their counterparts from Brazil and Argentina and are making their presence felt by carrying large flags and banners and through vociferous chants and songs. Local Russians offer amazing hospitality by wholeheartedly welcoming the guests, and they too soak in the carnival-like atmosphere.
The Red Square, which used to be an ideal retreat in the evenings for local residents, are now invaded by soccer aficionados from across the globe, but Russians have no complaints whatsoever.
While wading through a flooded street, one youngster approached me for a selfie, much to my surprise. I was wondering why somebody wants to click a selfie with a person hailing from a country which has nothing to do with the World Cup. But before I could tell him anything, he stretched his arm holding his smartphone. In fact, he was making a video call. The person on the other end could be his friend, I guessed. After exchanging pleasantries, he introduced himself to me. “I’m a Chechen,” he told me with a serious, almost deadpan expression. Before I could ask anything, he went his way and vanished in the crowd.
Like Catalonia in Spain, Chechnya too had a fraught history with the mainland. The Chechen-Russian conflict dates back to the 18th century. The territory was locked in a struggle between successive Russian governments and Chechen factions seeking independence. A majority of Chechens do not want to identify themselves with the Russian state, and that is the reason why he introduced himself as a Chechen, not as a Russian.
In the early days, the Soviet Union did not show much interest in Chechnya, a landlocked Muslim-majority province lying in the foots of the Caucasus Mountains. Chechnya's recent history of conflict with Russia goes back to the fall of the Soviet Union. When Chechnya declared independence in 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia vehemently opposed the move. In 1994, Russian troops invaded Chechnya to crush the independence movement. The war, which killed up to 100,000 people, started in December and lasted 20 months, but in the end, Russia had to withdraw its troops.
Russia went to war in Chechnya for the second time in five years in 1999. They captured the capital, Grozny, and Vladimir Putin declared direct rule from Moscow. In April, 2009, the Kremlin ended its decade-long counter-terrorist operations there. Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov became the head of the Chechen Republic after Russia established direct rule in the North Caucasus. However, Chechnya's battle for independence is far from over. Chechnya looks certain to be a gigantic headache for Russia in the years ahead.
Today, at first glance, Chechens and Russians seem to have left that bloody past behind and are working in tandem to make the World Cup a grand success. There are reasons for this new-found friendship. Ever since Russia was chosen to host the 2018 edition of the World Cup, there has been an aggressive anti-Russian campaign in the western media, spearheaded by the UK-based media houses.
They forecast that the country would not able to conduct the event properly. Political differences with Moscow was a major reason for this negative approach. There is no denying that Putin’s firm-hand policies and dictatorial governance too contributed to this western media pessimism.
There were also question marks on Russia’s ability to combat hooliganism at the tournament. Russia’s ferocious soccer hooligans showed their true colours at the Euro 2016 when they targeted England supporters ahead of the opening match of the tournament.
Russian authorities appear to have kept hooliganism at bay, as there were no untoward incidents involving violent fans so far.
Officials have confirmed that no trace of sabotage was found in the Monday’s boat accident at Volgograd in southern Russia, one of the host cities, in which 11 Russians were killed.