Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is luring some of soccer’s biggest names to the North Caucasus as he seeks to turn his local team into a European champion and promote sports as an alternative to faith-fueled violence.
Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and other members of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup winning team agreed to play a match on March 8 in Chechnya, where Russian forces fought two wars against Islamic and secessionist forces in the 1990s, said Kadyrov, a former guerrilla, in an interview in Moscow on Feb. 19.
“They are coming with their wives,” said Kadyrov, who will captain the home team against the Brazilians as president of local Russian Premier League club FC Terek Grozny. “If it was dangerous, I wouldn’t play. Everything is safe.”
Kadyrov, 34, said he’s betting former world player of the year Ruud Gullit will bring home Russia’s first Champions League title as early as next year. Gullit agreed last month to become the first foreign coach for Terek, which finished 12th of 16 teams last season, its third-straight in the top division.
Then-President Vladimir Putin groomed Kadyrov to lead Chechnya after his father Akhmad was killed in a bomb attack on the regional capital Grozny’s main soccer stadium in 2004. Human Rights Watch, which tracks government abuse, has accused Kadyrov of ordering abductions and torture, which he has denied.
Gullit, 48, led the Netherlands to the European Championship against the Soviet Union in 1988 and was part of the joint Belgian-Dutch bid to host the 2018 World Cup, which was awarded to Russia in December. He ended his playing career in England with Chelsea, the London club now owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
“Ruud Gullit fulfilled all our hopes,” Kadyrov said. “We have better training now and he’s changed our tactics.” Gullit couldn’t be reached for comment through Kadyrov’s press service.
Kadyrov’s “dream” of a European championship is just that, a dream, said Alexei Osin, a soccer commentator on Russian national television.
“But bringing in stars such as Gullit, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Dida, Kaka is an important PR move that will help build support for the sport in a difficult region,” Osin said by phone.