Published November 20, 2014
The query from my editor had the merit of being blunt: What's got into Ruud Gullit?
So began a search for clues. How to determine whether one of soccer's most famous names, an elegant midfielder who led the Netherlands to European Championship glory in 1988, might have shown a colossal lapse in judgment?
Well, taking a coaching job in Chechnya — yes, that Chechnya, of two wars in the past two decades, shocking brutality and Islamic terror — might arguably qualify. The former manager of Chelsea, the Los Angeles Galaxy, Newcastle and Feyenoord has agreed to an 18-month contract with Chechnya's Terek Grozny team.
Equally questionable: agreeing to work for Ramzan Kadyrov, the bullnecked president of both Chechyna and of Terek.
Kadyrov's opponents — it's wise to chose words carefully — have a habit of disappearing and turning up dead. Rights groups have accused his security forces of abducting, torturing and killing civilians. In a particularly chilling portrait of Kadyrov a few years ago, the Los Angeles Times said the Chechen leader smiled, put a knife in his mouth and bit down on it when the term "human rights group" was uttered in his presence. It also described Kadyrov delighting in using his pet tiger to scare his imported swans, pelicans and ducks, saying: "I'm going to make them scream."
Closer to home for Gullit, Kadyrov in 2008 also said that for Terek, "it's better to be dead than to be second."
Perhaps Gullit should have spent more time talking this through during his Christmas vacation in St. Barts. His wife, Estelle, told the Dutch magazine Miljonair that the 1987 European player of the year mulled over the Chechnya job when they mingled on the Caribbean island with Diddy, Demi Moore and Roman Abramovich, the billionaire who knows a thing or two about how soccer glitz can help gloss over the darker sides of his native Russia.
Or perhaps it's just the money. Maybe the problem, if there is one, is not with Gullit's sanity but his moral compass.
"Of course, Ruud is going to be well paid. How much? I'm not saying. But you can assume it's a question of millions," Miljonair quoted his wife as saying.
"His budget will be unlimited and his salary is good by any measure," she reportedly added. The alternative was "a 48-year-old man sprawled on the couch. You don't want that."
After peace deals are negotiated, the resumption of sport can be a milestone in the return to normality after war. For instance, the Olympic Games — not held in 1940 or 1944 because of World War II — were organized in bomb-ravaged London in 1948, just three years after the conflict ended and despite continued rationing of vitals like gasoline and food.
Likewise, the Chechen capital, Grozny, is no longer the bombed-out moonscape it became when Russian forces and Chechen separatists fought. Gullit, if he ventures out, will discover restaurants, cafes, even sushi, a showcase new mosque, rebuilt schools and universities and, in Putin Avenue, a thoroughfare as nice as any in a provincial Russian city.
Terek, the team Gullit is acquainting himself with this week at a training camp in Turkey, fell apart in 1994 amid the beginnings of the first Chechen war, its players scattering to other clubs. Later reformed, it wasn't able to play at home in Grozny until 2008 because the city was deemed too dangerous. For the moment, while a new 30,000-seat facility is built, Terek plays at Grozny's Sultan Bilimkhanov stadium. That is where Kadyrov's father, Chechnya's first Moscow-backed president Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed in a 2004 bomb blast.
So perhaps Gullit shouldn't be knocked for exporting his soccer expertise and big name to Chechnya, not if one also believes that its people should not be deprived of the hope and reconciliation that sport can foster. If nothing else, his appointment is focusing minds on both the good and evil in Chechnya. Another Netherlands great, Johan Cruyff, is among his defenders.
"It reminds me of my choice to play for Barcelona in 1973. Many critics said I was opting to play in the country of the dictator Franco, who was still in power in Spain," he wrote this week in the Dutch daily De Telegraaf. "Many people underestimate the power of sport — which sometimes gives you the power to change things through play."
But sport's ability to capture imaginations, to rouse passions and pride, can make it a tool for savvy dictators, too.
That's what British lawmaker Lord Frank Judd fears is happening here. He's long kept a close and critical eye on human rights abuses in Chechnya and last visited the region a year ago. He says Gullit has fallen into a propaganda trap laid by Kadyrov. He also pointedly noted that South Africa was shunned, not embraced, by world sports during its apartheid years.
Gullit is "maybe motivated by a lot of goodwill," Judd said in a telephone interview. "But it is exactly the type of endorsement that these tyrants are looking for."
"It is an exploitation of his expertise, prowess and knowledge. That is very sad for him," he said. "Things are not back to normal. That is exactly what Kadyrov and the Kremlin want us to think."
So is Gullit a pawn, a pioneer, or just plain ignorant? In Grozny, he should have plenty to think about.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org