3 February ~ No one expects scads of political wisdom from footballers, and any fans who would love to see their favourite players side with the forces of progress will almost certainly end up disappointed. Rio Ferdinand's condemnation last week of Richard Keys and Andy Gray as "prehistoric" in their attitudes towards women was a rare spark of enlightenment in a traditionally conservative, chauvinistic milieu. But while we may not expect today's pros to be manning the barricades come the revolution, it still comes as a shock when a figure like Ruud Gullit winds up as the new coach of Terek Grozny, a Russian top-flight team whose president, Ramzan Kadyrov, is also the authoritarian, Putin-backed president of Chechnya.

Kadyrov, once a teenage Chechen rebel who switched sides after the first Russia-Chechnya war in the 1990s, has been accused of numerous human rights abuses since taking over the territory in 2007. Critics of Kadyrov and his regime have a habit of being assassinated or kidnapped, even once they've moved abroad. Houses belonging to the relatives of Chechen insurgents often burn to the ground in the middle of the night. The use of illegal prisons and torture are reportedly among Kadyrov's favoured methods of government, with the leader himself said to be prone to taking part. But none of this seems to bother Gullit, who compared his mission to Grozny with the Dutch team taking part in Argentina 78.

"There was a lot of discussion in 1978, but the Netherlands went then for sport," Gullit told the Dutch daily De Volkskrant last week. "This is exactly the same. You will always have people for and against. But I don't want to be involved in politics, I want to concentrate on the sport and give the people there a little pleasure in their lives again." To illustrate this little pleasure, he told the story of how one boy on the team – who "has trouble laughing" because of his war experiences – was cheered up by Gullit paying him a compliment.

This facile reduction of a long-term geopolitical crisis across the northern Caucacus to a sentimental anecdote demonstrates why, if football players can't say anything sensible about matters beyond the game, then they shouldn't speak at all. If Gullit really doesn't want to be involved in politics, he shouldn't coach a team whose president is a man like Kadyrov, who can exploit the Dutchman's presence, and no doubt his Jesus-like ability to cure a player's blues, to legitimise his iniquitous rule. Gullit's parallel between his move to Grozny and Dutch participation in the Argentina 78 World Cup – a permanently tainted tournament that should never have taken place – is possibly appropriate. Perhaps he thinks that Arie Haan's late winner against Italy that took Holland to the final brought a consolatory smile to the mothers of the Disappeared.

If we are to condemn Gullit, though, can we upbraid other players who make lucrative moves in the pay of countries or organisations with less than perfect human rights records? When Zinedine Zidane took money from Qatar to be an ambassador for their 2022 World Cup bid, did he not thus indirectly condone the state's ban on homosexuality? Is anyone on the payroll at Chelsea FC not retroactively looting Russian state coffers? Are Blackpool players not at least passively harassing anyone who might be aggressively pursued for unpaid debts accumulated after borrowing money at extortionately high interest rates from the team's shirt sponsor, Wonga?

Football does its best to live in a moral vacuum, and most of the conundrums cited above fall into a greyer area than Gullit's teaming up with Terek Grozny. At some point, though, you surely have to draw the line. However much players claim they land in a certain place just to do a job and earn a living, they can't ignore the sound of gun shots in the night. Gullit is either naive or deluded to think that his presence in Grozny is a boon to the Chechen people. If I'm wrong, send him on a tour of the world's trouble spots, so that sexy football may chase all the people's cares and problems away. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (16)
Comment by mwildman 2011-02-03 11:55:06

A touch sanctimonious perhaps? Put it another way would Gullit not going make any difference, either way, in the geo-political situation? Football is very trival in the grand scheme of things, please try to get some perspective.

Comment by robccfc 2011-02-03 12:06:49

This is a poor article. Footballers are not politicans, special envoys, or experts in Caucausian politics. And why should they be? They are footballers, paid to do a certain job, namely play (or in Gullit's case) coach.

In the penultimate paragraph you come close to disagreeing yourself, but then recall that this is not how you began the article.

But where do we draw the line? England have played in Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and goodness knows how many Communist countries pre-1989. Should the players have taken a moral stand against playing in such dictatorships (sorry - "people's democracies")?

There is an interesting article in here about the role of football in a warzone, how it is exploited by the Kadyrovs of this world, etc, but to put it all on Gullit's head and force him to make a decision which most politicians shy away from is disappointing.

Comment by Coral 2011-02-03 12:36:29

It's not a poor article, just one you don't agree with.

No footballers are not politicians, but that is not the point. Gullit has been brought in to legitimise the regime in Chechnya, or at least make an effort. This is not a football decision to bring him in, it is a calculated move to win people's support, a move which Gullit is complicit in by taking on the role. If this was genuinely a manager going to a good club in a good league then fine. But this isn't about football it’s about putting a message out saying “look we are not that bad, a world class football celebrity has come to our country”.

Football has a huge influence on people which is recognised by those in power or with wealth. It would be simplistic to think of football as just a sport. If it were I would not be readying myself for a 2022 of watching a lot of international sport in winter.

Comment by robccfc 2011-02-03 12:57:35

In fairness Terek Grozny will be playing in the top Russian league this year, and have been there fairly regularly in the past.

I'm sure Kadyrov has his reasons, I never denied that, but Gullit IS going to a decent league where, if he does well, he will get noticed.

Your comment about Qatar is out of place, and I'm happy to debate that elsewhere (we probably agree!) but the fact remains that we cannot and should not expect sportsmen to make decisions like this. Terek Grozny have been cleared to play in the Russian league next year where they will face Spartak Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg, Rubin Kazan etc. The people of Chechnya have suffered enough without having well-known sports stars boycotting them because of their leader.

Comment by The Exploding Vole 2011-02-03 13:03:11

Just want to say that I live in a moral vaccuum, and though it isn't all that pleasant, I never have to do any hoovering.

Comment by Coral 2011-02-03 13:39:40

Okay here is a mock up survey for man on the street in Europe.

Who are Terek Grozny? Answer, no idea

Who are the best teams in the Russian league? Answer, no idea

IS Chechnya a pretty nasty place? Yeah they got that war on there ain't they?

What if I told you Gullit was there? Well maybe not so bad if a global football superstar is there

Face it, Gullit is there to change the image of Chechnya. This is not dubiuos morallity of playing for a club that might get their money from gangsters etc. It is about allowing a club to use your personality to legitimise the wrongs of a country

Comment by jertzeeAFCW 2011-02-03 14:42:49

They are both using each other. One to legitimise the wrongs of the country, the other because he has been offered lots of cash.

If anyone is that moved by his wrongs go contact Amnesty International.

Comment by Coral 2011-02-03 16:54:35

Good point, why talk about anything? Just write to the respective parties involved to sort the issue rather than talking about it.

Comment by Sash08 2011-02-03 21:40:27

I am leeetle confused.
Should everyone be banned from coaching Terek?
Should everyone be banned from playing for Terek?
Should everyone be banned from playing Terek?
Should Terek be banned from playing in the Russian League?
Should Terek just be banned?
Should the Russian League be banned 'cos the Russian army wrecked Chechnya?
(passes a crayon) Please draw me some lines.
PS Also, when people refer to a "country", do they refer to Russia or to Chechnya? 'Cos Chechnya certainly ain't a "country".

Comment by imp 2011-02-04 02:54:35

Yeah, why bother with moral boundaries in sport, eh? When the England team gave the Nazi salute in Berlin in 1938, they were just following FA orders.

Sash08, you're throwing up an army of straw men there. I'm not advocating Terek should be banned from anything. I'm questioning the wisdom of an international household name like Gullit being used by a Kremlin-installed, authoritarian thug to legitimise his demagogic rule. It seems to me like a clear PR victory for a man accused of multiple human rights abuses. I'll borrow your crayon to draw a thick line that, in my view, he should have seen and clearly shouldn't have crossed.

PS Chechnya's not officially a country, that's true, though some would argue otherwise (including Kadyrov in his younger days). Palestine's not a country, either. Yet.


Comment by Sash08 2011-02-04 10:50:20

I think a little too much is sometimes expected of footballers when their own country can't even make a stand - e.g. the Nazi salute at the time of the official policy of appeasement. One could always point out that, for example, someone like Sindelar did not play along after the Anschluss; however, it is open to question whether his (and some other Austrian players' stance) was politically motivated or was it because they just thought that German football was beneath them.

When world football governing body awards the World Cup to a country whose rulers effectively appointed Kadyrov to run a republic with this country, I don't really expect Gullit to pull out his big fat crayon and draw a big fat line to make a moral stand. As for Kadyrov's "PR victory"... as long as he's Kremlin's main man in Chechnya, Gullit or no Gullit makes no difference at all.

Comment by imp 2011-02-04 12:37:11

Except for that "little pleasure" Gullit says that he'll be bringing to the unsuspecting Chechen public. I disagree strongly with your conclusion, but as Coral says, it's surely worth having the discussion.

Russia being awarded the World Cup is connected to this issue too. Can a body like FIFA, with all the conditions it imposes on a host country, make conditional demands in areas like political freedoms and human rights? Of course it won't, but the question is: should it? Again, I think that the answer is 'yes', if FIFA is to live up to its currently empty slogan about football being "more than a game".

Comment by robccfc 2011-02-04 12:53:54

FIFA, as the governing body of world football, can and should make demands regarding human rights, and its failure to do so just compounds its decision.

That said, we are talking about Ruud Gullit here, a professional footballer and coach. One individual. As said previously, we cannot expect sportsmen to make political and diplomatic decisions that our own politicians shy away from.

Russia is not Iran, the UN has not imposed sanctions on Russia nor Chechnya, British (and Dutch) industry are free to do business in the country and make significant amounts of money from doing so.

I cannot see why, this being the case, Gullit of all people should be forced into this moral dilemma when the likes of BP and Shell, for example, and indeed our elected heads of government, are left to get on with it and reap the (often very large) awards .

Comment by jappell 2011-02-04 14:33:43

I'm no apologist for the brutal regime in Chechnya, but this issue isn't as black and white as is depicted in the article.

Kadyrov and his henchman routinely flout human rights conventions, yes, but they are fighting a separatist, often Islamist, terrorist organisation, which employs equally brutal tactics. It's hard to fit the complexities of Chechen politics into a straight "oppressor v oppressee" narrative.

Given the moral twists and turns you might argue - indeed, Ian Plenderleith does - that Gullit is best off out of the region entirely. He cites the "facile reduction of a long-term geopolitical crisis a sentimental anecdote" as evidence that Gullit either misunderstands or is purposely misrepresenting the situation into which he is entering.

But actually, having been out to Russia and spoken to supporters of Terek, I think Gullit might be right - however naive that might sound.

According to the club's fans the football club's existence is a real beacon of light in the region. In a city where most of the signs of civil society - cultural organisations, museums, collective leisure activities - were pretty much wiped out by the war in the 1990s-2000s, Terek is at least one medium through which Chechens can express themselves in a constructive, socially-integrative way. They are proud of their football club.

In a sense, then, Gullit is right - he may well be contributing personally to raising the self-esteem of a region which has suffered terribly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even if he is in the pay of a warlord who travels around Grozny in a motorcade like this:

Comment by Dalef65 2011-02-04 14:48:21

I never knew that Ruud Gullit would assume such importance as all these posts seem to think that he has........

Great and World class as a player he was,but being realistic,if he was any good as a Coach he wouldnt be in Checnya in the first place.

Comment by imp 2011-02-17 15:22:21

UPDATE: The Guardian reports today that the 2002 Brazilian World Cup-winning team will travel to Grozhny next month to face a team that will be captained by Ramzan Kadyrov himself (you really couldn't make this stuff up), though they don't yet have confirmation from the Brazilians. Should it happen, this will of course merely be a sporting event to gladden the hearts of all Chechnyans, and will not at all be exploited for political reasons.

Meanwhile, Roberto Carlos is off to play in Dagestan, once he finds it on the map...

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