A Chechen Strongman's New Toy: Legendary Soccer Trainer Ruud Gullit Takes on Grozny

By Walter Mayr in Grozny, Chechnya

Dutch soccer star Ruud Gullit was a legend in the 1980s. Now he is the new manager of Chechen team Terek Grozny as part of a pet project by Chechnya's hardman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who hopes football success can help rebuild his battered country. But critics accuse Gullit, who used to be an outspoken proponent of human rights, of selling out.

Photo Gallery: Ruud Gullit's New Job in Chechnya Photos
DPA

The final decision didn't come until after the match was over. The stadium was already deserted, and the floodlights turned off. But in the drafty garage in front of the locker room, the manager of Chechen soccer club Terek Grozny was still standing among black Mercedes limousines and bodyguards, and waiting for his boss. He had been waiting for a full three-quarters of an hour.

Terek had lost one-nil. Deep in the bowels of the stadium, top club officials were holding a meeting. Then the president finally arrived: a pale, small, muscular man, built like a boxer. The waiting coach is dark-skinned, lanky and tall; and when his superior gave him a few encouraging smacks in the kidney region, he smiled briefly -- like a school kid who realized that he had just barely made the grade.

This is where Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit has ended up -- under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov, president of the Russian Premier League team Terek Grozny, and the absolute ruler of the Caucasus republic of Chechnya. Human rights activists accuse the Chechen leader of murder, torture and abduction -- allegations that he denies. The state prosecutor in Vienna has also produced evidence in a murder trial that allegedly shows that Kadyrov was behind the contract killing of a Chechen dissident. Kadyrov is a "man of war and terror," wrote journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006.

Holland's Gullit, on the other hand, was once the most sought-after player on the continent, and he became world famous as a player with phenomenal ball skills and enormous charisma. His signature dreadlocks became part of his image. Off the pitch, the "Black Tulip," as he was nicknamed, was a political activist of sorts. He dedicated his 1987 European Footballer of the Year award to Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at the time. Gullit once explained his support for the Anne Frank Foundation as follows: "When you are someone, you should speak out. Then people listen."

In the end, things became rather quiet around Gullit. No club had been willing to hire him as a manager since 2008. Then Kadyrov's offer arrived in January. Since then, people -- soccer fans, human rights activists and journalists alike -- have been taking notice again. But Gullit isn't saying much.

'Something Honorable'

In his temporary quarters, the closely guarded FC Terek Grozny team hotel, the Dutchman sits under framed portraits of Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004, and his son Ramzan. First it was the father, now it's the son who calls the shots at the helm of the republic -- and at the soccer club. Gullit sees no connection between the two positions held by Kadyrov. The coach says that he will only answer questions relating to soccer.

But what if his boss also has the club, in addition to the entire republic, in his iron grip? Gullit is annoyed, and says, without blushing: "Kadyrov may be the president of Terek, but he doesn't intervene; the club is run by others." Gullit says that he wants to give the Chechens a bit of joy after two wars: "What I'm doing here, aside from earning good money, is something honorable."

Gullit is said to receive an annual salary of between €1 million and €2.5 million ($1.4 million and $3.6 million), at a tax rate of just 13 percent. This is hundreds of times more than the average Chechen salary, and, if true, would be a remarkable financial feat in a region where, even according to official statistics, nearly half of the working-age population is unemployed. In return, Gullit is expected to miraculously produce overnight a top European team, while treading cautiously on political issues and having modest expectations when it comes to entertainment possibilities in the Chechen capital.

The flamboyant Dutchman, captain of the team that won the 1988 UEFA European Championship, was at home as a player in Milan and in London, where he played for Chelsea. As a coach, he ended up in Los Angeles. Gullit says that his US stint was an experiment that he wouldn't care to repeat: "It's a nightmare to work in a country where nobody cares about soccer."

Portraits of Kadyrov Everywhere

So it's apparently better to be in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Gullit has decided to take a liking to this city, with all its idiosyncrasies: the ubiquitous portraits of the dictator and his dead father that adorn the walls of buildings, just as inescapably as the Kims do in the North Korean capital Pyongyang; and the fans, who are only distinguishable from Kadyrov's bodyguards by the fact that they don't carry guns in the stadium. Just about everyone here wears black leather or bomber jackets, along with black woolen caps. When Terek plays in Grozny, the home stands resemble a funeral service for a gangster boss.

Provided Gullit is not training his players at the Russian spa town of Kislovodsk, 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the west, he has himself chauffeured through the streets of Grozny in a Mercedes S 500. The tinted glass in the back of the vehicle offers him a free view of the city, which only a few years ago looked as if an enraged giant had chopped it to pieces with the edge of his hand. Now large parts of the city have been given a total makeover.

Grozny, 20 years after two wars and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is again on the up and up. Just like in the Brezhnev era, brigades of babushkas armed with brooms brush away the dirt on the city's central Putin Boulevard, in front of the facades of new department stores, high-rise office buildings and shops specializing in Islamic fashions. At the same time, there are increasing numbers of women who wear Islamic headscarves to avoid being punished by Sunni moral guardians. There are also few cafés left which circumvent the prevailing ban on alcohol by pouring vodka in the teapots.

Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was once said to be the pearl of the Northern Caucasus region -- at least until the first war of independence erupted in 1994. The second war followed five years later under the supreme command of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Over 10 percent of the population lost their lives in the subsequent battles with the central power in Moscow and in terrorist attacks.

At first, Ramzan Kadyrov fought on the side of the insurgents, but later defected to Moscow. Today, he is being rewarded for this change of heart with a current annual cash injection of €1.8 billion from the Russian budget, which he is supposed to use to rebuild the republic, which is part of the Russian Federation, and fight radical Islamists. He tries to make the general population think he is investing his private fortune: Slogans such as "Ramzan, thank you for Grozny" and "Ramzan, thank you for everything" are plastered around the heart of the city.

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