GROZNY, Russia — When Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's all-powerful leader, wants something, he gets it.
His greatest enemies and critics have been killed. Chechnya, the southern Russian republic over which he lords, has become a place for him to hang posters of himself and go for joy rides in his fleet of fancy cars.
Since Russia won the right in December to host soccer's 2018 World Cup, Kadyrov has wanted one thing: for Chechnya to become the unlikely soccer capital of the world, with him, of course, as king. In that quest, he has drafted some of soccer's biggest names — for undisclosed fees — bringing the long corrupt world of international soccer to new heights (or lows).
First came the signing in January of Dutch legend Ruud Gullit as manager of Terek Grozny, the Premier League club of which Kadyrov is president. Two months later, Kadyrov captained a team of motley Chechens and Russians against an all-star (if aging) line-up of Brazilian World Cup winners, including greats Romario and Cafu.
Kadyrov lost that match 6-4 — and Kadyrov doesn't lose anything — so he organized a second contestant for World's Weirdest Soccer Match, which was held Wednesday night. He brought to the pitch international superstars including Argentine legend Diego Maradona, French goalkeeper Fabien Barthes, Portuguese midfielder Luis Figo, Italians Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi, as well as English darlings Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman. They formed “Team World.”
On "Team Caucasus" was Kadyrov, wearing number 10 opposite Maradona. Captain Alexander Khloponin, the Kremlin’s Caucasus envoy, appeared briefly as the teams warmed up on the artificial grass, failing to make the net even as the goalkeeper warmed up elsewhere. Other bureaucrats joined in the fun, including Adam Delimkhanov, suspected in the murder of Kadyrov enemy Sulim Yamadayev in Dubai. A handful of Russian stars rounded out the team — but as far as anyone was concerned, only one player mattered.
The referee blew his whistle at 11:45 p.m. — nearly five hours after the originally scheduled start time — and both teams lumbered to a jog, with Kadyrov quickly taking control. Cheers of “Ramzan! Ramzan!” filled the stadium, which at the start of the night was full to 30,000-person capacity. Many stayed to watch the show that began in the evening, officially a chance to mark the opening of Grozny’s gleaming new stadium. Akhmat Arena is named after Kadyrov’s father, the former president, who was killed in a stadium blast seven years ago as Chechnya struggled against a violent Islamist opposition.
After hours of traditional dances, Italian crooners and a 15-minute firework spectacle that might well have scarred those still recovering from Grozny’s brutal bombardment in its separatist war against Russia not yet a decade ago, the stadium was barely half full.
Still, shouts filled the air as Kadyrov took the ball, his stocky frame and overgrown belly giving him the lumbering gait of someone well beyond his 34 years. The opposing team melted away, as if under explicit instruction to leave the Chechen leader alone. In the first half, the internationals apparently forgot they were part of an exhibition game designed to exhibit not their skills but the supposed prowess of their paymaster and scored two goals, thanks to Chilean striker Ivan Zamorano and Maradona.
Perhaps they got a talking to during half time, which included a performance from U.K. singer Craig David and ended with a great shout from the announcer: “This game will enter history!” Kadyrov played his version of aggressive, pushing Maradona, 50, to the ground twice, with no fouls called. By the end of the second half, thanks to assists from Kadyrov (loudly announced and easy when no one is covering you), Team Caucasus had won, 5-2.
By the end of the match, cut short to two 20-minute halves, perhaps in a nod to the players’ age and, for some, inexperience, the stadium was barely one-quarter full. “Inside every man, there’s just a boy who wants to play football,” said the British journalist next to me. And that’s what it felt like — Kadyrov has developed a passion for the sport and wants to play with a few of his buddies. When all the world — or at least your republic — is your playground, why not invite some legends to take part?
“He plays football and trains every week,” Kadyrov’s spokesman, Alvi Karimov, told me a few weeks ago. “Even if he has work until midnight, he’ll come back and play football at 1 a.m. anyway.”
Those in the crowd, many wearing free T-shirts with the face of Kadyrov’s late father emblazoned upon them, were grateful. Some waved flags with Kadyrov’s face, topped with a beret in a clear nod to Che Guevara, and others with the face of a young Vladimir Putin. At one point in the night, a laser light show displayed an image of Kadyrov’s face on the pitch.
“It’s thanks to our president, Ramzan Kadyrov, that these respected international guests have come to this little republic called Chechnya,” said Kurban Ibragimov, a 38-year-old bodyguard for a local deputy. “It’s a grand opening.”
The struggle to gain entry into the stadium, which was free, was fierce, with police breaking out batons to control the crowd. Entrance, in line with Chechnya’s increasingly devout practice of Islam, was divided between men and women. Alcohol, cigarettes and lighters were confiscated at the door, leaving the ground littered with squished tobacco.
The stadium itself is ultra-modern, save for its VIP lodges, decked out in heavy marble, luxurious white curtains and doorknobs crusted in gold and jewels. Its outside is decorated with two enormous posters of Kadyrov and Putin, the Russian prime minister. Kadyrov made sure to thank “Vladimir Putin, our national leader!” before the match began, in a speech that was otherwise inaudible thanks to a helicopter circling overhead.
Whether it was a helicopter for use by TV or security was unclear. Security for the match was ultra-tight, as Chechnya continues to battle the remnants of an Islamist insurgency that is opposed to former rebel Kadyrov’s capitulation to the Kremlin. In their last major attack, rebels stormed the Chechen parliament in October. Kadyrov has been subject to several assassination attempts.
Snipers lined rooftops outside the stadium and camouflaged troops fingered Kalashnikov rifles on street corners in town throughout the day and night, standing below billboards reading “The head of the Chechen Republic welcomes the stars of world football!” and “Maradona, Welcome to Chechnya!”
Has Kadyrov hatched his mad scheme for soccer prominence to illustrate Chechnya's normalcy or add to his steadily evolving personality cult?
Either way, he can now say several heavyweights support his cause. After the Brazil match in March, Kadyrov denied that the superstar players had received any money for their efforts, saying they came out of "respect for the Chechen people" instead. Perhaps that's what he'll argue about Maradona et al. as well.