How Ramzan Kadyrov Tried—and Failed—to Save Chechnya with Soccer

The Chechen autocrat's short-lived dalliance with professional soccer went about as well as most things in the war-torn Russian province


Kadyrov presents Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit with a Terek Grozny jersey / Reuters

MOSCOW, Russia -- One afternoon in mid-May, Ramzan Kadyrov strutted into the shiny new stadium that had recently been added to the landscape of rebuilt Grozny, Chechnya's still-recovering capital.

"How do you like it?" Chechnya's leader asked Ruud Gullit, one of the best soccer players to ever come out of Holland -- two-time world footballer of the year, former star of AC Milan, one time hot shot manager of U.K. club Chelsea. "The most important thing is that you like it," he said, gracing Gullit with a smile and a manly hug. In a flash, he became all furrowed brow and frown as he barked, "Now, you must win."

At 34, Kadyrov has been the leading force in the Russian republic of Chechnya since 2004, when his father, then president, was killed in a bomb blast at Grozny's Soviet-era stadium. He has spent the past seven years amassing the sort of power likely to make any Russian official -- even those in the Kremlin -- envious.

In Chechnya, Kadyrov does everything from leading special operations against suspected rebels (the remnants of a separatist campaign-turned-Islamist insurgency that wracked the mainly Muslim province in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse) to lending his image to the ubiquitous propaganda posters that line the republic's roads and buildings.

Since December 2010, his rule has meant one thing: soccer.

That was the month that the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) awared Russia the right to host the 2018 World Cup.

Big soccer competitions mean big money. They also mean big attention. Kadyrov has been shown to love both. Within days of the announcement, the Chechen leader said he would seek to host a World Cup match in his republic.

"All the Chechen people are rooting for you. When we lose, children cry."

The idea of John Doe leaving the safety of his home in Brighton or Hamburg and flying to Grozny with junior in tow provoked more than a few chuckles and exclamations of disbelief. The war is long gone, thanks in part to the Kremlin's campaign to co-opt men like Kadyrov, who spent their youth fighting the Russian "occupiers" they now work for. But now Kadyrov, and the former rebels loyal to him (known as kadyrovtsy), rule Chechnya with a brutality learned in the republic's most violent years, inspiring a fear all their own. And some rebel violence, however low grade, persists.

So Kadyrov set on a mission: he would prove, in spectacularly Kadyrovesque fashion, that Chechnya was so peaceful, so normal, so great that even the world's best soccer players were jumping over themselves to go there.

Step number one: hire an all-star manager for Terek Grozny, the local Premier League club of which Kadyrov is, of course, president. The first attempt didn't go so well: former Barcelona midfielder Victor Munoz signed on as coach in December, but fled Grozny after two days with no explanation. Then came Gullit, who signed an 18-month contract on January 19 to much fanfare (Britain's Independent newspaper asked: "The worst football transfer in the world?")

Gullit insisted from the beginning, "politics and football don't mix." He was there for the experience, he said, later acknowledging that the money -- reportedly between two and 4.5 million euros a year -- played its part. In an interview with the Daily Mail last month he claimed: "I don't have to deal with Kadyrov."

But few major events in the republic happen without Kadyrov's oversight -- a point drilled into the minds of Chechens daily, via news broadcasts that rarely veer from showing a constant stream of their leader's activities and accomplishments. It was also the point made by Oleg Orlov, the head of Russia's leading human rights group Memorial, when he claimed that Kadyrov was responsible for the murder of Natalia Estemirova, the Memorial activist kidnapped outside her Grozny home in July 2009 and found shot dead hours later. (Kadyrov lost a slander case against Orlov in a Moscow court last week.)

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Miriam Elder is a journalist based in Moscow.

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