Maradona leads ex-football legends to Chechnya

Football legend Diego Maradona led an all-star squad of former internationals to Russia's war-torn Chechnya on Wednesday for a peculiar exhibition match sponsored by the local strongman leader.

Updated: May 12, 2011 09:10 IST
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Grozny: Football legend Diego Maradona led an all-star squad of former internationals to Russia's war-torn Chechnya on Wednesday for a peculiar exhibition match sponsored by the local strongman leader.

The 50-year-old Maradona and the likes of French World Cup winner Fabien Bartez, who is 40, were hustled into a bus at Grozny airport under tight security before being shuttled to the city's gleaming new stadium.

They walked onto the pitch to the roars of about 30,000 fans outfitted in special red, white and blue shirts that made the stadium look like a giant Russian tricolour flag.

"We are delighted that Chechnya is now building super-modern facilities like this stadium," former rebel turned Kremlin ally Ramzan Kadyrov said at the grand opening ceremony before the start of the match.

"The republic is reviving. We are on the right course," he said before the lights dimmed and the pitch turned into a grand stage for a romping performance of local song and dance.

The excitement preceding the match resulted in thousands of fans rushing the stadium gates, with several trying to climb the metal fence and a few of them requiring medical assistance, the Sovetsky Sport daily reported on its website.

But two 30-minute halves of the friendly ended amiably, with Maradona - who also boasts friendships with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro - scoring a goal in the Chechen side's 5-2 victory.

Grozny was flattened by two brutal wars after the Soviet Union's collapse and the authorities of Chechnya have poured enormous financial and political capital into the unveiling of a new stadium.

The match has been championed personally by Kadyrov as confirmation that his region was not only safe enough to host some of the world's biggest stars but also that his own authority was now accepted by the international community.

Kadyrov is a hate figure for rights groups that work in the region and accuse his security teams of abducting civilians for ransom and torturing those who fall foul of his rule.

But he has won the Kremlin's trust after switching sides amid signs that Moscow viewed him as a figure it could both control and rely on to bring order to the restive Muslim region.

The new stadium is named after Kadyrov's father Akhmad - like his son a former rebel turned Kremlin supporter who was killed in a bomb blast at the old football grounds in 2004.

The game followed another unlikely clash on March 8 in which a side captained by Kadyrov clashed with a Brazil squad that included luminaries such as 1994 World Cup winners Bebeto and Dunga.

The composition of Wednesday's team had been kept tightly under-wraps until the last minute. But Chechen officials optimistically promised an astonishing array of talent.

Walking onto the pitch to all-around gasps were the likes of Portugal's Luis Figo, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman from England, France's Jean-Pierre Papin and Italians Franco Baresi and Christian Vieri.

The Chechen authorities have vehemently denied claims that the Brazilian stars were paid huge cash rewards to turn up for the match in March in a region that until now has hardly figured on the global football map.

Rights activists have also questioned the morality of the football stars backing a leader who is currently on trial in Vienna for murder.

One of the Brazilian stars in the March match, Rai, later admitted he regretted his participation, saying he had shown "naivety" and "negligence" and would in future monitor the political situation in Chechnya more closely.

"I took part in something that I strongly condemn, I participated in a manifestly political event in a context that was unknown to me, without understanding the consequences or the intentions," he wrote on his blog.

The match also comes at a time when Chechnya and the other Muslim regions of the North Caucasus are still fighting an Islamist-tinged insurgency that claims scores of lives among police and civilians every year.

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