Chechnya All Stars help launch stadium
- 12 May 2011
- From the section Europe
A team of former international footballers has played a controversial match in Grozny, the capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya.
The event was staged for the opening of the city's new 30,000-seater stadium.
But campaigners say the footballers were being used for propaganda by Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov.
The roads leading to the new stadium were all blocked with huge, armoured trucks.
Troops manned checkpoints and those people allowed through on foot walked past more soldiers every 50 metres.
All day we watched heavily-armed convoys driving through the city.
The entertainment started with singers and local dance troupes. A fireworks display followed, accompanied by the anthem used by the European Champions League.
The choice of music was a sign that the local club Terek Grozny, currently playing in Russia's Premier League, has European ambitions.
Then came the match.
Diego Maradona led out the All Stars team, which included Luis Figo, Fabien Barthez and two former England and Liverpool players Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler.
The home team - under the name Kavkaz - included the president himself playing as striker, and the Russian president's envoy to the Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin, was in goal.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the All Stars defence allowed President Kadyrov to score a hat-trick, and his side emerged victorious, winning 5-2.
The build-up to the match included propaganda films being shown to the crowd which filled the stadium. Human rights groups who are critical of the president say the footballers were being used by him.
But Robbie Fowler told the BBC that they were there for one reason only, that of the glorious game.
He said: "Politics aside, we are not here for that. We are here to play football, solely football."
This sentiment was shared by his good friend and former Liverpool team-mate Steve McManaman who said that the game was "not a piece of propanda for us".
He added: "There's many, many, many countries, isn't there, with various political problems? We are not here politically. We are just here to play football."
For Portuguese player Luis Figo it was about championing football internationally.
He said: "It's good because we promote football in different places, and that's the important thing. I think this a beautiful stadium and it is a pleasure to inaugurate it."
Mr Figo had met President Kadyrov earlier in the day.
Ramzan Kadyrov, who famously own lions and tigers, has been tasked by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with keeping Chechnya quiet.
He has largely succeeded, but campaigners say that while the reduction in violence is to be welcomed, the unsolved disappearances and deaths of human rights activists and journalists should not be the price for peace.
Chechnya is certainly a unique part of the Russian Federation, with the air of a dictatorship, rather than a republic in a new democracy.
Hundreds of posters of Ramzan Kadyrov adorn the capital. One reads: "Sport is our Power, Victory is our aim."
His father Akhmad Kadyrov switched sides between the two Chechen wars, helping Russia to win the second conflict. In revenge he was killed by a massive bomb at Grozny's old stadium in 2004. The new stadium has been named after him.
Such violence is very rare now in Chechnya, and the city - once infamous for being little more than rubble and shell-holes - has been almost entirely rebuilt.
It is an extraordinary achievement, though it is unclear where all the money came from for such an impressively quick recovery, or for the new stadium, or for the unknown fees paid to the team of fading football superstars who opened it.