February 3, 2011
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.â€¨â€¨
"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.â€¨â€¨
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.
â€¨â€¨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?â€¨â€¨
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.