The Republic of South Ossetia began in violence. A war in the early 1990s, a de facto split from Georgia, and a part in another semi-civil war some 15 years later – with Russian backing.
It’s not a name that rolls easily off the tongue; too many soft syllables, maybe just too many syllables in general. It’s not incredibly accessible, on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus mountains. It’s an agricultural place, and recognised as a state by only five UN members: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria and Nauru. In short, it’ll likely never be a thriving metropolis or a tourist hotspot.
But South Ossetia is a European finalist.
All photos by Theo McInnes
That’s the thing about CONIFA, if you’re not clued in yet. This kind of thing happens all the time in the place where every team’s existence is an upset, and no odds are insurmountable.
The Ossetians came into the tournament as massive outsiders, ranked behind six out of their seven opponents and in a group with not one, but two of the semi-finalists from last year’s World Football Cup. Oh, and Western Armenia, physically strong opponents and in a region which is Armenian in all but name.
They came in hoping for a victory to take home, or at least a showing that they could be proud of. And then they started winning. Two goals from Batradz Gurtsiev gave them victory over the Armenians on the opening night, and Gurtsiev struck again – with Ibragim Bazayev grabbing one of his own – in front of almost 5,000 people in the capital to stun pre-tournament favourites Padania and secure a place in the final four with a game in hand.
They drew that game in hand, Gurtsiev cementing himself as one of the unlikely stars of the tournament with another two goals to drag his side from behind twice in what ended as a 2-2 draw.
Narrative met narrative in Askeran for the semi-final, as South Ossetia faced off against Marco van Basten (no not that one) and his Chameria team in front of the president of Artsakh and 500 other fans, packed into the tournament’s smallest stadium, the backdrop of the mountains standing out against a bright blue sky.
It wasn’t a great game. There were a lot of long balls, a lot of agricultural clearances, and no shortage of small, flow-breaking fouls. There weren’t a lot of chances (Fatjon Çollari made one brilliant save in the Chameria goal), and there weren’t...any goals.
The first time in the tournament a game could go to penalties, it went to penalties. Loads of them. Keepers traded saves, Van Basten scored a panenka, Çollari got fed crisps by members of the crowd, and the score was 6-5 when South Ossetia stopper Muharbeg Buraev flung himself onto the deciding spot kick.
From nowhere – from a position where they were expected to finish last in their group – South Ossetia will face local favourites Western Armenia in the final in Stepanakert on Sunday night. After all they’ve come through, it’d be daft to count them out.