Retired Soccer Stars Slammed by Chechnyan Home Team

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. The southern Russian Republic of Chechnya is returning to normal after years of war between local separatists and Russian forces. At least that's what the country's controversial president, Ramzan Kadyrov, would like everyone to think; and he thinks soccer is a good way to make his point. Kadyrov brought a team of retired international soccer all-stars, lead by the legendary Diego Maradona to Chechnya this week for an exhibition match. Perhaps not surprisingly, the aging all-stars were beaten by the home team. Miriam Elder is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. Her article about the match in Grozny appeared in London's Guardian newspaper. Now, you relate a really bizarre match complete with hovering helicopters and snipers, so I think we need a little context to fully grasp just how weird it was. The Chechen team, made up of Chechen and Russian players, was captained by president Kadyrov himself. Tell us a little bit about Ramzan Kadyrov.

Miriam Elder: Well, Ramzan Kadyrov has been now the leader of this republic unofficially for about seven years now, officially for five, and he took over at a very young age. Now he's 34. He's a very thuggish young man who rules this place as if it were his own backyard.

Werman: Now, on the other side of the field, the international all-star team, Maradona, the former Liverpool great, Robbie Fowler, and many others. Maradona is now 50, aging in his own way, and Fowler is no spring chicken. Did it look as if they wanted to be there in Grozny playing soccer against Kadyrov and his team of Russian Chechens?

Elder: No, it's hard to tell whether they wanted to be there or not. Certainly they didn't put their all into the game. The most interesting part was at any time Kadyrov had the ball, the major players would just kind of melt away and let Kadyrov do whatever he wanted with the ball. And as the announcer noted every single time, Kadyrov assisted every single goal.

Werman: Right, so everybody kind of deferring to the president soccer player. Why did Kadyrov hold this match?

Elder: There's two sort of reasons: one is that Russian recently won the right to host the World Cup in 2018; the second the Kadyrov proved was that he wanted to host his own game on his territory. But the other reason also that you got at the game was that this is a guy who just really likes to play football. And maybe because of his stocky frame or whatever reason he didn't have much chance to do so as a kid. And since he is completely powerful in this republic he just took a chance to invite some of the best players the world has ever seen play against him and a few of his friends.

Werman: Now, a couple of months ago apparently the same team in Chechnya played against a bunch of Brazilians and lost pretty badly. Some people have said this match might have been fixed. Is there any evidence of that?

Elder: Um, I don't know if you'll ever see evidence as in a contract signed, but it's certainly seemed that the other side was not playing to top capacity. And the interesting part is in the first half the international side scored two goals within 18 minutes. They went off for halftime and when they came back it was a miracle and the Chechen side scored five goals and the international side was not equalizing at all.

Werman: That's amazing!

Elder: Yeah.

Werman: Journalist Miriam Elder speaking with us about a bizarre soccer match that ended very early this morning in Grozny, Chechnya. Miriam, thank you.

Elder: Thank you.