Published March 9, 2011
Grozny's Dynamo stadium was packed to bursting as Ramzan Kadyrov the 34-year-old strongman who is head of Chechnya, led his team on to the pitch for a bizarre match against an all-star team from Brazil.
Kadyrov's side, apparently a motley collection of overweight and greying Chechen bureaucrats spiced up by the presence of Terek Grozny's coach, Ruud Gullit, and a couple of Russian supersubs, took the field against altogether more formidable opponents: a collection of Brazilian World Cup winners from 1994 and 2002, including Romário, Bebeto, Cafu, Dunga and Denílson.
The match was a stunt organised by the attention-hungry Kadyrov, who enjoys a flourishing personality cult in this southern Russian republic, and an attempt to portray Chechnya as stable and safe from insurgent violence that plagues Russia's northern Caucasus region.
The former separatist rebel, who switched sides and became the Kremlin's stooge in the region, has transformed war-torn Grozny into a smart, modern capital, but he is accused of crushing all political dissent and targeting civilians in his fight to quell an Islamist insurgency. Last year, he praised people who fired paintballs at women not wearing Islamic headscarves and called human rights campaigners "enemies of the people".
He now wants Grozny added to Russia's list of 13 host cities for the 2018 World Cup.
Fears of a militant suicide bombing at the stadium were high, and an entire neighbourhood around the ground was cordoned off by military trucks. Spectators had to go through two metal detectors and three bag checks to get into the stadium.
In the stands, support for Kadyrov was predictably high. Ali Geldibayev, 26, who runs his own business selling window blinds, said: "It's only down to Ramzan that this we're seeing this amazing match.
"He is our everything. Take Ramzan away from the Chechens and there is nothing left. I would give my life for him right now, Allah be praised." His friend Khalid Khantemirov, 24, an oil worker, added: "With Ramzan we have unity and pride. He is our leader, our hero."
Brazil, in their traditional yellow and blue, started in style, stroking the ball around and scored within three minutes. However, Grozny, in blood red, struck back, and the game was level at 2-2 after the first-half of 25 minutes.
All attention was on Kadyrov, a well-built figure in tracksuit bottoms, who effected the role of a goal-hanging centre-forward. Both teammates and opponents seemed keen to give him the ball, but his early efforts bore little fruit. He had one penalty saved and put another spot-kick past the post, before scoring his first goal with a tap-in.
The second half started cautiously. Among the spectators was Khamzat Dzhabrailov, 54, a former Soviet middleweight boxing champion who used to spar with Kadyrov when the latter was a teenage pugilist, said: "The Brazilians are afraid to play strongly because Ramzan will break their necks if they win."
The second half progressed with a flurry of goals, one struck by Grozny's undisputed penalty-taker – Kadyrov – from 12 yards. Zetti, who played in goal for Brazil in the early 1990s, artfully dived under the shot. At the final whistle, though, it was 6-4 to the Brazilians who, despite valiant efforts, could not hide their superiority.