Four years ago, the carpet bombed ruins of Grozny, capital of Chechnya, reminded visitors of Stalingrad after World War II.
But last Tuesday night, the explosions here were fireworks, celebrating a morale-boosting exhibition game between Grozny’s football team and members of Brazil’s 2002 World Cup winning team at Grozny’s refurbished football stadium.
As the Brazilians in their green and gold jerseys stepped out in the chill mountain air, a crowd of about 10,000 Chechen men, and a handful of women, jumped to their feet for the national anthems of Brazil, Russia and Chechnya.
After years of war, Chechens were bursting with pride that these Brazilian football heroes had flown to a city whose name often evokes fear elsewhere in Russia and the world. For Chechnya, the football game culminates three years of intense rebuilding.
Moscow has invested billions of dollars in rebuilding the capital and the republic. From the capital to the countryside, it is now hard to find physical evidence of two wars that ravaged Chechnya since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Ali, a government advisor, says the exhibition game marks Chechnya’s renaissance from ruin. It also put on display the political formula of his boss, Chechnya's leader, 34-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov.
Chechnya’s young leader rules with a mix of Islamic fervor, energetic populism, and concrete results on the ground, and total loyalty to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
It is no accident that Grozny’s main avenue, Prospect Putin, culminates at the doorstep of a glistening new mosque, reputed to be the largest in Europe. In a city that three years ago had no electricity after dark, the mosque is bathed in soft exterior lights through the night.
At the stadium, a government supplied sign read: "Ramzan, thanks for everything." Tuesday night, a visiting reporter asked Kadyrov if there was more to the exhibition game than football. Without responding directly, he shouted over the reporter’s head, leading fans in chants of "Praise Allah."
In May, Kadyrov is to inaugurate a new city stadium with triple the seating capacity of the current one. Now he wants Grozny to join the list of 13 Russian cities that will host the 2018 World Cup. While no decision has been made, it is clear that the Kremlin likes Kadyrov’s style as Chechnya's leader. Last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reappointed Kadyrov for a second term as President of Chechnya.
On Friday, Prime Minister Putin announced that Moscow will funnel $12 billion into development projects designed to pacify the Caucasus. With oil prices up, Moscow has the money.
Critics charge that Chechnya’s leader siphons off a fair amount of Moscow’s billions to live a young man’s fantasy life. If an internet surfer googles "Kadyrov cars," photos will pop up of European high performance sports cars allegedly owned by Chechnya’s president. A Google search for "Kadyrov palace" will yield photos of an Arab style palace, complete with gold plated bathroom fixtures, that he has built in his home village.
Last month, Grozny’s football club, Terek, hired as coach the retired Dutch soccer star, Ruud Gullit. According to Moscow media reports, Grozny will pay Gullit $8 million a year to coach a team that represents a city of only 350,000 residents.
On Tuesday night, Kadyrov fulfilled another fantasy - leading a team of friends against the legendary stars of Brazilian football. To prepare for the match, the Chechen leader told reporters he had lost weight.
During the game, the Brazilians obligingly pulled their punches, setting up two foul shots on their goal by the opponents’ center forward: Ramzan Kadyrov.
On the second one, Zetti, the Brazilian goalie helpfully ducked right, as President Kadyrov shot left.
Chechnya’s unhappy history was not far from the game. Seven years ago, at the same stadium, a massive bomb blew up beneath the VIP seats. Among the notables killed was Akhmat Kadyrov, president of Chechnya and father of Ramzan.
Tuesday night at half time, Makka Mejhidova, a singer resplendent in Chechen national dress, walked onto the field in front of the VIP seats and sang national hits. Suddenly, a group of bodyguards charged out of the locker room. And then, there on the field, was Ramzan Kadyrov, in his red and white football jersey, dancing Chechnya’s national dance, the legzinka. The crowd cheered wildly.