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Photo Gallery: Ruud Gullit's New Job in Chechnya

Foto: Kazbek Vakhayev/ dpa

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

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.

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.

'One of the Safest Places Anywhere'

Is it a personality cult? "The fact that the posters are not torn down proves just how much the people love me," said Kadyrov with a grin. It was shortly before midnight, and the leader of the country had surprisingly suggested an interview in the cabinet meeting room. Apparently unafraid to take a fashion risk, he was wearing an outfit made of dark blue velvet, which appeared to be a mixture of uniform and pajamas.

Anyone who wants to be allowed in to see Kadyrov has to get past the armed guards of the special Omon unit, followed by security checkpoints where the officer on duty yells: "Keep moving, keep moving, or you will all be shot over there." Finally the visitor arrives at a park-like Chechen Disneyland complete with mosques, fountains and modern government buildings.

Kadyrov, the former rebel dubbed the "hero of Russia" who now runs a soccer club, seems out of place among all the heavy wood and leather furniture. He does his best to adopt a statesmanlike tone as he speaks of the struggle for human dignity and condemns "alcohol, drugs, prostitution and trafficking in women." He praises countries with "strong leadership" like China and Saudi Arabia. And he is delighted that the "shaitans" (devils) among the rebel leaders have been "destroyed" by his forces. Chechnya, he says, is now "one of the safest places anywhere."

That is, of course, the sore point of the project to make Terek Grozny into a candidate for the UEFA Champions League: Up until two years ago, there was a state of emergency in the whole of Chechnya. The German Foreign Ministry in Berlin still "strongly" advises against traveling in the rebel heartland between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. In Grozny, however, they don't want to have to pay risk premiums forever when they recruit international stars.

Gullit's Wife Decided Not to Come

At least Gullit has allowed himself to be persuaded into coming. That is a first step in the first direction. Nonetheless, the new coach has to pay double premiums for his life insurance and get by without his wife, who decided not to join him in Grozny. He also can't help but notice that even Kadyrov, the president of the republic, hides in a convoy of up to three dozen black limousines when he travels overland -- and there are good reasons for this.

Last August, a group of guerrilla fighters launched an assault on Tsentoroy, where Kadyrov regularly barricades himself in a fortress complete with leopard and tiger cages. At least 14 people died in the attack. In October, suicide bombers killed three innocent people in front of the parliament building in Grozny. Finally, according to police reports, five weeks ago in the capital two men who wanted to blow themselves up were "destroyed."

Life in Chechnya has become safer since the end of the war, but it is still not safe. Gullit claims that he is not afraid, though. The Terek coach says that he can fortunately form his own opinion. Instead of dramatic CNN reports, he now listens to the stories "of everyday people."

The real stories, however, are only whispered behind closed doors in Grozny. They don't appear in the newspapers, and they inevitably take place outside the heavily-guarded compound of the Terek world - in Shovkhalov Street, for instance, not far from the city's great mosque.

Only rubble remains of the building that stood there until early March. Now there is a death certificate for the man who was buried inside: Arbi Sigauri. He was a "rebel who was eliminated during the operation," as it was phrased by the operation's commanding officer -- none other than Chechen President Kadyrov himself. Sigauri was suspected of being the "emir" of a cell of Islamist resistance fighters. Said, the dead man's brother -- an ardent Terek fan who was studying history at university -- was abducted by security forces that same day. He hasn't been seen or heard from since. His name has been added to a list of at least 3,000 people who have disappeared without a trace under Kadyrov's rule.

The Best Team in Europe

Back at Terek, they have other concerns with regard to Chechen president. As soon as Kadyrov shows up for a visit, he clowns around and jostles and prods Gullit, who he treats like an old buddy. The B squad was practicing on the pitch that morning. "Come on, let's go, good!" yelled the assistant, while the head coach tried to keep the despot in a good mood. For the time being, they are only focusing on the basics: passing and running. This is lightyears away from the "sexy football" that coach Gullit famously used to demand of his players on other teams.

Ever since the club failed to sign Diego Forlán, the Uruguayan striker who was voted the best player of the 2010 World Cup, Gullit knows that additional transfers will not be possible until early August. He now has to hold out for 17 games with the squad that he inherited. This setback doesn't affect the objective laid down by his superiors: Terek, which was five places from the bottom of the rankings last year, should become the "best team in Russia and Europe," according to Kadyrov. And he expects this to happen swiftly.

Terek vice president Khaidar Alkhanov says that players in Grozny earn on average $300,000 a year. As the underworked Chechen minister for physical fitness, sports and tourism, Alkhanov spends a great deal of his time trying to figure out what his boss plans to do next. "Ramzan demands that we become like Chelsea or Manchester United," says the minister with a completely serious expression. "That might sound ridiculous today, but you just wait and see."

Terek, the pride of the soccer-crazed Chechens, has to move up in the rankings, that much is clear. The club's success is nothing less than a matter of national interest: If Kadyrov cannot offer his subjects much bread, he needs to make sure they at least have circus. Separatists in the Caucasus are threatening Russia's territorial integrity. This has already prompted the neighboring republic of Dagestan to hire veteran Brazilian player Roberto Carlos for an estimated annual salary of €6 million.

Assassination in the Stadium

So what can be expected to happen in Chechnya, where -- conveniently enough -- everything is in the hands of one man? Where Gullit's timid captain, to the dismay of the club's press officer, went on record as saying that he only has his position because "that's what Kadyrov decided"? Progress with Terek is also proof that things are moving forward, says vice president Alkhanov, who openly calls it a "political victory" that the club has managed to recruit Gullit: "We wanted to show that things are not as bad here as what all you journalists write."

Even players like Cafu, Romário and Bebeto have agreed to help pull Terek out of obscurity. On March 8, the former Brazilian world champions flew into Grozny and played the leading roles in a grotesque performance, which was officially carried out in return for a Chechen donation to flood victims near Rio. The idea was to just barely beat "Team Grozny" -- captained by Kadyrov, and starring Ruud Gullit and Germany's Lothar Matthäus. After missing two penalties, the Chechen president finally managed to score on his third attempt.

Team Grozny lost on that evening, but what was more important for Kadyrov was the message that nothing is impossible. In addition to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, wasn't Russia also promised the World Cup in 2018? Is there any reason why Grozny, with its new stadium, shouldn't be a venue? And lest we forget: Long before Gullit arrived, boxing stars like Mike Tyson and Wladimir Klitschko weren't above visiting Chechnya.

Terek Grozny officials say that they are discussing the matter with "Sepp," in other words, with FIFA President Joseph Blatter. The Swiss soccer official has said that he has a soft spot for Russia, a market worth billions. But apparently he has no one on his staff that monitors the sports press in the country.

No More 'Arrangements'

In an interview from last December, Terek official Alkhanov told the Russian Sport Express daily newspaper that the team in Grozny has decided that there will "no longer be any prior arrangements" with referees. He said that this prompted him to tell their rivals in the Russian premier league: "From now on, there is no point in calling us anymore." In the future, they will no longer listen to requests for results from any club or regional administration, he said.

Even today, there are still persistent rumors of match-fixing surrounding the 2004 cup victory over Krylia Sovetov Samara, the greatest success in the history of the Terek club. Many in Russia believe that a "political" victory had been ordered out on the pitch. After all, the North Caucasians needed something to celebrate only five years after the outbreak of the second Chechen war, and only three weeks after the country's leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, had been blown to pieces by a bomb in the stadium stands.

Just over a decade before Gullit arrived, Terek Grozny had almost ceased to exist. Back then, Shamil Basayev was a striker and an official in the club. At the mujahideen world cup, which he organized, the top prize was reportedly a grenade launcher. Basayev, who was later wanted across Russia as a terrorist leader, was liquidated by the domestic intelligence agency in 2006.

But that's all water under the bridge for most people in Grozny these days. Now that Gullit is there, and now that French talent agents whisper in the back room of the team hotel, they say that Terek is on its way to becoming the Chelsea of the east -- especially since the fans have been joined at the sidelines of the stadium by a powerful man who has decided to give the future of Chechen soccer a helping hand.

'Everyone Helps in Their Own Way'

Bulat Chagaev is the son-in-law of the last Soviet Communist Party boss in Chechnya. He mainly focuses on managing his successful business activities in Geneva. As a sideline, he has dedicated himself to his hobby as a Terek sponsor. He refuses to admit that Gullit was not actually their first choice as manager: Talks with Spain's Víctor Muñoz had fallen through earlier this year, and the club had also been interested in Switzerland's Christian Gross.

Chagaev would rather say that the Terek project is a matter close to his heart: "We are Chechens. Everyone helps in their own way. It is a system of voluntary solidarity. Kadyrov has never asked me to give money."

Gullit was standing about 50 meters away. In the film that they show on the video screen before each kick-off during home games, he dances around his opponents, and finally stands alone with the ball on the goal line. Then he does another pirouette before planting the ball into the net.

As the coach in Grozny, though, Gullit currently has to struggle primarily to retain his composure in view of his team's technically challenged and lumbering players. Terek has already lost its second league game, and the coach is not the only one who realizes what the problem is.

"We need another good defender and a striker," Kadyrov wrote in a memo to the Chechen minister for physical fitness in March. "Check who can be recruited for the team."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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