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

On May 12, TV Grozny showed Kadyrov welcoming Gullit and his straggling club to the new stadium. Fingering prayer beads and clumsily dribbling a soccer ball, Kadyrov was clearly upset. "When you play badly, I shut off the TV because I am ashamed," he said. "Play better," he ordered. "All the Chechen people are rooting for you. When we lose, children cry."

He turned his attention to the players -- Chechens, Russians, Brazilians, Cameroonians. "If you can't run for 90 minutes, I don't understand what kind of a footballer you are," he grumbled, feeling perhaps particularly haughty at the time. The night before, his squad had "beaten" an all-star side of international footballers led by Argentine legend Diego Maradona by five to two in a highly theatrical exhibition match designed to further raise the profile of soccer -- and Kadyrov -- both inside the republic and around the world.

"You have speed, technical skill, health -- what else do you need?" Kadyrov continued. "You need to fulfill what was signed in the contract."

In the world Kadyrov has constructed, there is no room for error or chance, for individual fulfillment or personal will. He expects total allegiance and rages at those who don't comply, be they rowdy human rights activists who regularly decry the massive abuses in the republic or the confused footballers wondering just what they're doing in Chechnya.

Gullit broke that cardinal rule when he complained to the Daily Mail that Terek's training grounds were poor, that certain player transfers he was promised hadn't come through, that friends wouldn't come visit him because, "You can't have a drink and you can't communicate with anyone." Even more insulting to Kadyrov may have been the coach's claim that the president plays no role in the club and that "most people didn't even know where [Grozny] was until I came here." To top it all off, Gullit had managed just three wins out of 13 games -- not quite meeting his promise to turn Terek into a Premier League champion by the end of the year.

Kadyrov lashed out. "Gullit's actions at the head of the team for the past half year show that he hasn't, in principle, figured out the game or its players," read a statement posted on Terek's website last week. The club, and its president, had earlier ignored Gullit's statements to the foreign press, but could do so no longer -- the training grounds were fine, they wrote, the failed player transfers Gullit's fault.

"Few can boast of such relations and attention from the head of a republic as Terek can," the statement continued. Kadyrov, it said, was "extremely unhappy" with Gullit, particularly his claims about the lack of drinking (Kadyrov has limited alcohol sales to two hours per day, in line with increasing government-imposed observance of Islam).

"The Chechen Republic has its traditions," the statement said. "Gullit should know that he was invited not to end up in nightclubs and discos, but to work in a soccer club, and to achieve a result. Yes, we don't have drug addiction, we don't have an obscene nightlife, like they have in Holland and Europe." Instead, it said, there are parks and ice rinks to encourage healthy living. It ended with an ultimatum to Gullit: win your next match, or say goodbye to Grozny.

The next day, Terek lost zero-to-one against Amkar Perm after kicking the ball into the team's own net at the last minute, a particularly poor showing. In yet another TV broadcast, Kadyrov said goodbye to the man he had once touted as Chechnya's great hope. "We parted as friends," he said. "We agreed to stay in touch."

Gullit saw it differently, telling journalists after leaving Grozny, "I knew this was no ordinary country and no ordinary football league. But it's all been too bizarre for words."

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Miriam Elder is a journalist based in Moscow.

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