In 1988, Ruud Gullit led the Netherlands to victory at the European Championship. Now the Dutch soccer legend is defending his move to Chechnya to coach the team belonging to authoritarian President Ramzan Kadyrov.
Gullit said he was not at all scared to be in the volatile region
Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit arrived Wednesday in the Chechen capital, vowing to transform the local team Terek Grozny - whose president Ramzan Kadyrov is also leader of the volatile Russian republic.
The two-time world footballer of the year was greeted by hundreds of cheering Terek fans upon landing in Grozny, where he appeared wearing a green Chechen republic scarf around his neck. The football idol was seen smiling as supporters gathered to chant his name and dance traditional Caucasus dances around him.
"I have already had a chance to work at the club and now I know it has no weaknesses," Sports Express' website quoted Gullit as saying after his arrival.
Gullit appeared wearing a scarf with Chechen national colors
Praise from controversial leader
Gullit was greeted by Kadyrov after four small explosions rocked Grozny late Tuesday and early Wednesday. Kadyrov praised his team's new coach for being a "real man" in choosing to move to Chechnya despite the region's dismal security record.
"Men should never be afraid of a thing," Kadyrov said. "A man only knows fear when he loses his honor and dignity."
Kadyrov - whom the Kremlin credits with maintaining peace in the region but human rights workers accuse of being a radical despot - was scheduled to give Gullit a brief tour of the town.
'It's about sport, not politics'
Ahead of his trip to Chechnya, Gullit defended his decision to coach the controversial leader's team, which finished 12th in the 16-team Russian Premier League last year.
In an interview with Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, Gullit likened the situation with the Netherlands' choice to participate in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, despite the host country's leadership by a military junta.
Kadyrov is a highly controversial leader but an undeniable sports fanatic
"There was a lot of talk in 1978 as well … but the Netherlands went after all for sport. This is exactly the same... I'm not going to occupy myself with politics. I'll concentrate on sport and try and put some pleasure back into people's lives there," the 48-year-old said during training in Turkey.
"I think this region will get much more attention through my going there and that can have a positive effect," he said, adding, "People there also want to move on," in reference to ongoing unrest in the region, which caused the team to leave Grozny from 1990 until 2008.
"There is a boy in the team who has difficulty laughing," Gullit told the paper. "The staff told me it was because he lived in bunkers for 10 years, due to the war. I made the boy laugh by giving him a compliment. I think that is nice - and that is the other side to this [story]."
From London to Chechnya
Gullit, who has signed an 18-month contract with Terek, told a Russian sports daily he would "only be coming to Grozny for the matches" and would spend the rest of his time at the team training base some 200 kilometers (120 miles) away.
Terek did not play in Grozny for 15 years due to war and unrest
Gullit, World Player of the Year in 1987 and 1989, captained the Netherlands to its 1988 European Championship title in 1988 and has since coached English Premier League teams Chelsea and Newcastle United as well as Los Angeles Galaxy, which he left in 2008 after less than a year citing personal reasons.
Terek approached Gullit after failing to sign former Spain and Barcelona midfielder Victor Munoz.
Author: David Levitz (AFP, AP, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner