The May 11 match was the culmination of a grandiose show marking the opening of a renovated stadium in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny — a symbolic event that Kadyrov upheld as proof the republic has recovered from two bloody wars with Chechen separatists.
“We are on the right path and that is why God is helping us,” Kadyrov told the crowd. “May God always bless us with good fortune.”
“The republic is being reborn,” the 34-year-old strongman added as 30,000 fans cheered across the stadium, rebuilt at a cost of more than $250 million.
The stadium is dedicated to Kadyrov’s father and predecessor, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was killed in a bomb attack at a different Grozny stadium in 2004.
Maradona scored one goal for his team, which featured football legends including Portugal’s Luis Figo, Britain’s Steve McManaman, France’s Jean-Pierre Papin, and Italy’s Franco Baresi.
But to the general surprise, the star-studded team lost 5-2 to its host, a team composed of local officials and professional footballers.
Kadyrov assisted in some of his team’s goals but didn’t score himself, though some erroneous reports said he put two — or even three — goals into the net.
The game followed a similar exhibition match in March that pitted local players captained by Kadyrov against a Brazil squad featuring members of Brazil’s 1994 and 2002 World Cup-winning teams.
Chechen officials have strongly denied paying players to attend, despite questions over what could have brought so many football icons to remote Chechnya.
Their participation is likely to have upset rights campaigners, who have long accused Kadyrov and his feared militia of severe rights abuses against civilians.
The matches, beyond playing into the volatile republic’s self-touted recovery, also enable Grozny to burnish the image of Russian football as the country prepares to host the 2018 World Cup.
Some of the foreign players were certainly impressed.
“I think it’s nice,” Portuguese footballer Luis Figo told Reuters. “What I saw, it’s like a city that is improving in terms of infrastructure, so I just hope in the future it will get better and people can live very well here.”
Grozny is not on the list of the 13 cities bidding to host World Cup matches, although Kadyrov has voiced interest in seeing that change.