Chechnya’s 34-year-old President Ramzan Kadyrov already has a palace, a private zoo, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini with personalized plates, a gold-plated handgun, a whole republic that he treats as a personal fiefdom, plus Russia’s highest decoration conferred personally by Vladimir Putin. How, then, does the man who has everything celebrate his fifth anniversary in power? Kadyrov’s solution: hire your favorite Brazilian football stars for a scrimmage in front of 10,000 adoring fans.
Last week Bebeto, Cafu, Dunga, and Romário—all veterans of Brazil’s legendary World Cup teams—were flown in to play a friendly match against Chechnya’s own team, Terek Grozny, captained by Kadyrov himself. The match was a showcase of Chechen-style razzmatazz, all within the rules of Sharia, which Kadyrov says he wants to introduce to his state. Star singer Amina Akhmadova warmed up the crowds dressed in a full-length dress and tight-fitting Muslim headscarf, while Kadyrov performed a traditional dance at halftime and revved up the packed stadium with shouts of “Allah Akbar!” For the match he wore long training pants rather than un-Islamic shorts. The newly rebuilt stadium had a special resonance for Kadyrov because it was where his father (and predecessor as president) was assassinated by a massive bomb blast in 2004. Despite Kadyrov’s repeated appeals to the Almighty, the Brazilians won 6–4.
Kadyrov is set on making Grozny into a major world football center. Just 10 years ago the Chechen capital looked like Stalingrad after being flattened by Russian forces as they crushed Chechnya’s attempt to break away from Moscow. Now, thanks to an infusion of money from the Kremlin to the tune of $2.2 billion a year, Grozny is full of marble-lined boutiques, and nearby Gudermes, the ancestral home of the Kadyrov clan, boasts a vast new water park with four indoor pools. Kadyrov hopes to catapult Terek Grozny to the top of European football, and last year hired legendary Dutch football coach Ruud Gullit on an 18-month contract. The terms are secret, but Russian press reports have put the deal at $8.3 million per year, with a $13.9 million bonus if Gullit brings the Champions League title back to Grozny next year.
Kadyrov has said that football is “a way of winning the war against extremism” (not to mention of distracting his people from 51 percent unemployment and grinding poverty). But it remains to be seen whether Kadyrov’s deep pockets—and his rubles that are thought to come from dubious business deals and corruption—can buy football glory for his downtrodden nation.