View Full Version : Chechen leader takes on Brazil

11-03-2011, 09:49
Kadyrov versus Brazil from The Times.

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When Chechnya’s hardman took on the boys from Brazil

After a decade of terror, Chechnya’s leader brings the beautiful game to his people — as a striker against Brazil

Even before I try to pick out former Fifa World Players of the Year Romário, Ruud Gullit and Lothar Matthäus, I look for the snipers perched high in the roof of the stadium. I don’t see them, but local people assure me that they are there. After all, the marksmen help to ensure security at ordinary league matches in Grozny, capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya, and this game is anything but run-of-the-mill.

A team made up of Brazilian World Cup winners is in town to take on a side handpicked and captained by the head of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, a former separatist fighter accused of human rights abuses. Kadryov, 34, the proud owner of a gold-plated handgun, is, however, expected to take the field unarmed. The game is akin, perhaps, to Arsenal taking on a Libyan side that includes the nifty footwork of Colonel Gaddafi.

Images of the Brazilian side flash on the big screen as the 10,000 capacity crowd warms up with chants of “Ramzan”. Apart from the greying Romario, the biggest cheers are reserved for Cafu, captain of the 2002 World Cup-winning side, and Dunga, Brazil’s coach at last year’s tournament. The biggest, that is, until Kadyrov’s name is announced. In comparison, the applause is muted for Matthäus and Gullit — here to coach FC Terek Grozny, the city’s Premier League team — his most famous teammates in a Chechnya side largely made up of Russian vets and government officials.

With seconds to go before kick-off, fireworks erupt from both ends of the pitch and many people instinctively duck for cover. This is, after all, the same stadium where Kadyrov’s father, the first Kremlin-backed Chechen leader, was killed in a bomb attack blamed on insurgents in 2004. Like most Chechen men I meet during my visit to the republic, Kadyrov is crazy about sport, and not merely because of its effectiveness as a PR tool. He once persuaded Mike Tyson to open a boxing tournament in the still war-ravaged city in 2005, but this latest stunt is more impressive. The unlikely encounter has attracted journalists from all over the world and provides a rare good-news story for Kadyrov and a Chechnya that’s better known for the two brutal separatist conflicts that tore it apart in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Brazilian football has global appeal and exports thousands of players every year. Russia is not immune to Brazilian fever; almost every top club has a Ronaldinho wannabe and this match has been a topic of heated discussion for weeks, with rumours that the recently retired Ronaldo would be playing. Other reports suggested that the all-time World Cup leading goalscorer was about to sign for Terek. Though neither Ronaldo story turns out to be true, Russia’s North Caucasus region is experiencing a genuine football boom, with Terek shocking the football world in January by hiring the former Chelsea and AC Milan star Gullit as coach at the club. Later Anzhi, from the neighbouring republic of Dagestan, signed Roberto Carlos, the former Real Madrid and Brazil defender.

On the day of the game, the latest rumour is that the former Manchester United forward Diego Forlan, winner of the Golden Ball for best player at last year’s World Cup, is set to move to Grozny. Anything here, as far as football is concerned, seems possible.

It’s easy to be cynical about the reasons behind this sudden wave of football-related spending, but local fans, many of whom are wearing clothes adorned with Kadyrov’s image or initials, are just glad to have some good football to watch. After more than a decade of almost daily violence, it would take a harsh man indeed to begrudge them the pleasure.

“Less than ten years ago, when Grozny lay in ruins, if someone had told me that one day world stars would come here to play football, I would have thought they were insane,” Magomed Doukhaev, a local fan, says.

Kadyrov hosts a hastily arranged news conference on the eve of the match, summoning journalists for a near-midnight meeting. Clad in black, cocksure and full of energy, he strides into the hall and smiles impishly. “Hi,” he begins. “I’m Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic.”

Given his reputation, Kadyrov must have been expecting questions on topics other than football, and thinly veiled accusations of murder and torture soon fill the hall. He is unfazed, though, commenting casually when asked if he ordered the assassination of an enemy in Austria: “If I had wanted him dead I could have killed him in Chechnya and no one would have known about it.”

He also refutes suggestions that he is overseeing the Islamisation of Chechnya, forcing a blushing female aide to come out in front of the gathered journalists to confirm that she wears a headscarf because it is her “duty to the Almighty as a good Muslim”. No one, she insists, is forcing her to do it. She makes no mention of recent paintball attacks, praised by Kadyrov, on uncovered women.

The conversation returns to the big game and Kadyrov looks suitably astonished when asked how much the Brazilians are being paid to come to Grozny. “We have to pay them? I haven’t heard about this. If they ask, we’ll refuse. They are coming out of respect for the Chechen people.” He goes on to say that he and “his friends” provided assistance for victims of floods in Rio de Janeiro and the game is a big “thank you” from the Brazilian players. Cafu later confirms the story.

He also denies that there is any ulterior political motive to the game. “The world loves football and the Chechens love it, too,” he says. “My grandmother is over 100 and always says to pray for a Terek victory. This game is a present to Chechnya’s fans ahead of the new Russian season.”

However, Khaidar Alkhanov, the sports minister, is more pragmatic the next day, telling me at the airport that the match will provide a “boost for the development of Chechnya”. This is something Grozny clearly needs. While a tense calm reigns in the capital, the republic has 40 per cent joblessness and there is no local economy to speak of. In place of its own industries, Chechnya receives huge funding from Moscow, which is struggling to contain Islamic insurgents in other republics in the region and has no desire to see the flame of separatism spark again in Grozny.

I have difficulty making out what Alkhanov is saying over the noise in the arrivals area: members of the Ramzan Kadyrov Patriotic Club youth organisation are chanting their leader’s name. Outside the airport, Chechen girls in national costume are shivering as a light snow begins to fall. Adults cover them in coats as we all await the arrival of the footballers. The Brazilians are flying in from Geneva, while Gullit and the Terek team are arriving from a Turkish pre-season training camp.

And suddenly they are here — Romario leading the players through a Ramzan Youth guard of honour to a coach that will take them to their hotel in central Grozny. Security here, unlike the capital, seems lax and it occurs to me that this is as good a place as any for a terrorist outrage, but deep down I sense that there is no danger. Brazilian football is revered and while it may be naive of me, I feel Chechen terrorists would never attack such an event. It would be the way to lose any support that may linger here. After all, even the late militant leader Shamil Basayev, responsible for the 2004 Beslan school massacre, was a keen football fan and turned out for Terek’s youth side.

The Brazilian side’s road to Grozny is, like the city itself and the stadium that will stage the game, festooned with billboards and banners portraying Kadyrov, his late father, Putin and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Kadyrov has often spoken of his “love” for Putin and has renamed the main street in Grozny in his honour. Bulat, a former Grozny resident now living in Moscow, tells me that “when we speak of President Medvedev, we are being politically correct. We know where the real power lies.”

Oddly, for a man who controls Chechnya with an iron fist, Kadyrov tells journalists that he is powerless to prevent people putting up posters of him. “I feel uncomfortable when I drive through Grozny and see myself everywhere,” he says. “It’s not my idea, but if no one touches them it means they respect me. I’m a handsome guy, so why shouldn’t people look at me?”

11-03-2011, 09:49
In the hours before the game, whole streets are cordoned off by armed police and members of Kadyrov’s private army, many of whom are amnestied former insurgents. My rucksack is checked three times for explosives on the way to the stadium. The irony that Kadyrov and his men are now responsible for the security of a city that they, with the Russian Army, once helped to raze to the ground is lost on no one. At least I assume it isn’t, though I don’t ask the security personnel what they make of it all.

The Russian anthem follows the breezy Chechen national hymn, and is met by the briefest of booing from a section of the crowd before the catcalls give way to cheers. If this is an indication that resentment of Russian rule lingers here, then the applause for Kadyrov’s appearance must be evidence that he enjoys the affection of many ordinary people. After all, despite the allegations of extra-judicial slayings and private torture chambers, his rule has seen the reconstruction of the once-devastated city. For many, a lack of political and social freedom is a price worth paying for a little stability. Grozny today is an attractive, clean city and sitting on Putin Avenue in one of its many cafés, it’s hard to reconcile the experience with its violent past.

Kadyrov leads the crowd in a chant of “Allahu Akbar!” and then the match begins. “Ramzan we are with you!” a banner reads behind the opposition’s goal — something that Kadyrov the striker rarely threatens at the start.

The Brazilians toy with their opposition, quickly taking a 2-0 lead, before allowing Team Grozny back into the match. At 2-1 Kadyrov fluffs a penalty, Brazilian keeper Zetti saving his weak shot easily. He may be an authoritarian leader able to balance the demands of the Kremlin with clan rivalries and alliances, but Kadyrov takes very bad spotkicks. Later, his next attempt flies over the crossbar. He finally puts a penalty away towards the end of the game, Zetti letting the ball roll under him. The goal, like Kadyrov’s first (a tap-in), is greeted by wild applause from the stands.

The midfield general Gullit has a quiet game and is subbed midway through the first-half after a knee injury. The highlight of the fixture comes at half-time when Kadyrov takes the field to strut an energetic lezginka, a traditional dance. It’s an iconic moment and the Chechens go wild as the world media record the moment for posterity. Kadyrov basks in the attention.

The match ends 6-4 to Brazil and all that remains is Gullit’s pitchside news conference. The former TV pundit looks bemused. Terek are based 150 miles away in the town of Kislovodsk and this is only his second time here.

Gullit was, initially at least, unfazed by his posting to Grozny, saying in February: “I’ve been in more awful, dangerous and impoverished regions. I’ve been to Darfur.” Kadyrov has said he expects Gullit to lead Terek to European success, but the Dutchman tries to introduce a level of realism. “We have to take things one game at a time,” he says, falling back on the traditional argot of football. But it’s appropriate: Terek have not made any signings to rival the acquisition of Gullit as trainer, and it’s unclear what he is expected to do with the same players who finished 12th out of 16 teams in last season’s Russian Premier League.

“This is a country that is trying to rebuild itself,” Gullit says. No one has the heart to tell him that it was Russia’s desire to impose its statehood on the region that led to war in Chechnya. Does Gullit not know where he is? Or is it just a slip of the tongue? The Brazilians are already making plans to leave Grozny, but Gullit’s Chechen adventure is just beginning.