Chechnya: An exercise in footballing public relations

Posted on March 25, 2011

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First featured in The Alligator

‘Stranger than fiction’ is an over-used epithet when it comes to football. Predictably, it was the first phrase that popped into my head when hearing that Ruud Gullit’s latest managerial post would see him report directly to ex-Chechen warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov (‘stranger than drug-induced-fantastical-nonsense’ is perhaps more accurate in this case).

Gullit, who was last seen by English fans sitting next to Jamie Redknapp as a pundit on Sky Sports, is the new manager of Russian top-flight side Terek Grozny, after agreeing an 18-month contract with the club in January of this year.

Ostensibly, the former Chelsea, Newcastle Utd and Watford boss, is following a well-trodden path of high-calibre names who have plied their trade in the hinterlands of European football. Gullit’s compatriots Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink can testify as much, both having enjoyed success in a country that has bought household names such as Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov to the Premiership. Taking the reins at a middling Russian side is not akin to say Luiz Felipe Scolari, who only months following his departure from Stamford Bridge could be found in the dugout of Uzbek side FC Bunyodkor. Terek Grozny are also a step-up from Guillit’s last position as manager of retirement-home favourites, LA Galaxy.

So why the bemusement I hear you ask? Well, wittingly or not, the dreadlocked Dutchman who was part of the first-wave of European players to grace the Premier League, is now the poster-boy pioneering a different sort of project: revolutionising the image of war-torn Chechnya.

The North Caucuses region of which Grozny is the capital, is more synonymous with internecine insurgency and suicide-bombing than it is ‘sexy football’. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Muslim-majority state has been embroiled in a separatist struggle against the central government in Moscow. Chechen rebels – or ‘terrorists’ as they’re more often referred to in the corridors of the Kremlin – have a left a bloody trail in the heart of modern Russian society, claiming responsibility for a spate of bombings and attacks including the Moscow theatre siege of 2002. ‘Image problem’ is another one of those zeitgeisty sporting tropes that springs to mind.

But in recent years, President Ramzan Kadyrov has bought a semblance of calm to the troublesome state. Chairman of Terek Grozny, a close personal friend of Vladimir Putin and a keen dagger-collector, Kadyrov’s journey from separatist to stooge is more befitting of an Ian Fleming novel than it is Roy of the Rovers stuff. The pin-stripe suited 34 year-old with a penchant for kalashnikovs is accused of scores of human-rights abuses, endemic venality and corruption in office. Since being hand-picked for the Presidency in 2007, Kadyrov has overseen a total suppression of political dissent in the province.

Ruling with an iron-fist has its advantages. Now commanding the unwavering support of Dmitry Medvedev, who recently re-appointed Kadyrov for a second term in office, Grozny has not only experienced a lull in violence but has undergone an economic and architectural regeneration of late; it is football that is now providing the icing on this tyrant’s proverbial modern cake. Ruud Gullit, and his reported $8 million a year contract, is the first string in the bow of Chechnya’s public relations renaissance.

Kadyrov’s grand-plan to appropriate the beautiful game reached a bizarre full-circle last week when he donned the red of Terek Grozny in an exhibition match against a Brazilian side featuring a host of World Cup winners in the stadium where his father was assassinated in 2004. Having spent vast sums refurbishing Chechnya’s only football ground and inviting the globe’s most decorated former players to grace its pitch, Kadyrov is keen to parade his gentrified capital as a venue for Russia’s staging of 2018 World Cup. If granted, the decision would cap Chechnya’s rise from war-ravaged thorn in Moscow’s side to a participating host in the world’s most watched international sporting competition.

Kadyrov tussles with ex-Brazil coach, Dunga in a testimonial match between Terek and Brazil (AFP)

Throwing federally-administered money behind football has inaugurated the Chechen Prince into an elite club of tin-pot oligarchs for whom football is an index of the highest personal prestige. But for Kadyrov and his fiefdom, it’s more than that. Chechnya’s burgeoning footballing credentials are, Moscow hopes, a harbinger of prosperity and cultural equivalence for the republic Kadyrov once struggled to gain independence for.

The capture of Gullit, a Brazilian testimonial, the 2018 World Cup and even reports that Terek Grozny are to tempt ex-striker and Ballon d’Or recipient Ronaldo, out of his new found retirement, have succeeded in distracting international eyes from everyday life in Chechnya’s police-state. When it comes to public relations, it seems that football, like the best of fiction, is an escapism that can sweeten the most brutish of realities.

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