Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov took his drive to promote the region where Russia fought two wars in the past 20 years to a new arena: Sultan Bilimkhanov Stadium.
At the venue where his father Akhmad was killed in a 2004 bombing, Kadyrov yesterday captained a Chechen soccer team in an exhibition game against a squad of former Brazilian stars including Romario, the 1994 world player of the year, and Cafu, who represented his country more times than anyone else.
Kadyrov has been using sports to promote himself and the North Caucasus region, directing attention away from attacks by Islamic militants. The Chechen leader also lured Ruud Gullit, another former world player of the year, to coach Terek Grozny, the club based in the region’s capital that finished 12th of 16 in Russia’s top division last year. Kadyrov is Terek’s chairman.
“They write everywhere about the killings and the explosions in the Chechen Republic,” Kadyrov said at the stadium after the game. “Now we showed that Chechnya is developing and we are building a decent future.”
Gullit and former German star Lothar Matthaeus joined Kadyrov’s side. The guests said they played for free.
The Brazilian team won 6-4 in the two 25 minute periods. Kadyrov scored twice, though he missed two penalties. Bebeto and Savio had two goals each for Brazil, with Cafu and Romario also finding the net.
“It is great joy for us to get together with all those with whom we played big football,” Dunga, the captain of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning team, said after the final whistle. Bebeto said “it was understood” that the only financial component of the match was some fundraising for victims of recent flooding in Rio de Janeiro.
About 10,000 people attended the match, including plainclothes security officials.
Kadyrov, 34, was groomed by then-President Vladimir Putin to lead Chechnya after his father’s death. His family fought against Russia during the first war and changed sides in 1999. Human Rights Watch, which tracks government abuse, has accused Kadyrov of ordering abductions and torture, which he has denied.
The Chechen leader, who was named for a second term by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Feb. 28, greeted the crowd with cries of “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.”
“Chechnya is the safest place in Russia”, said Kadyrov, who lives in a fortified residence and travels in a motorcade of a dozen armored cars on streets sealed by security officers armed with assault rifles.
There were 27 kidnappings in Chechnya last year, according to Memorial, a Russian human rights group. The number is down from 93 the previous year, said a Memorial activist who declined to be identified, citing personal safety concerns.
Similar groups have operated covertly since the 2009 murder of Natalia Estemirova, an activist. More than 3,000 people have disappeared since 1999, without any legal repercussions, according to Memorial.
The improvement is temporary and the situation may deteriorate again after Kadyrov has ordered his forces to intensify an anti-terrorist crackdown, said Alexander Nemov, a human-rights activist from Nizhniy Novgorod who is working with the Joint Mobile Group of the Public Commission of the Republic of Chechnya.
The Brazilian players, including Romario’s 1994 World Cup attacking partner Bebeto, were greeted by hundreds at the Grozny airport, many of them wearing black “Patriotic Putin Club” and red “Ramzan’s Club” jackets.
“This football game means to me that Chechnya is heading toward being a normal place to live in,” said Ramzan Altemirov, 44, a dentist who took his son and nephew to meet the players.
Grozny has been rebuilt since the two wars, with cranes erecting skyscrapers obscuring the view of a mosque that the government claims is Europe’s biggest. Kadyrov is building a new presidential residence nearby.
Putin Avenue, the city’s main street, is lined with cafes, a hookah bar and a pizzeria. Kadyrov and his father appear on billboards flanking major thoroughfares, while Ramzan’s image is plastered on the wall of a car dealership that adjoins a new shopping mall.
“They are coming with their wives,” Kadyrov said of the Brazilian stars in an interview before the contest. “If it was dangerous, I wouldn’t play. Everything is safe.”
Not everyone feels that way. Raisa Turluyeva, 41, said law enforcement officials kidnapped her son in 2009 and burned down two houses her family owns in a village, claiming insurgents had used them for shelter.
“I have nothing to fear,” Turluyeva said. “I can’t rejoice at these changes you see in Grozny. I want my son back. I just want to know if he’s still alive.”