Maradona leads star team in Russia's Chechnya
Diego Maradona took to the field Wednesday to captain a team of retired superstars in a ceremonial match to mark the opening of a new stadium in Chechnya.
It's the latest effort by local authorities to show the formerly war-torn Russian province is flourishing.
The 50-year-old Argentine soccer icon was joined by Luis Figo, Steve McManaman, Franco Baresi and other former stars of the game in the capital of the province in southern Russia. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov played for the opposing team of local officials and players at the new stadium dedicated to Kadyrov's father and predecessor, who was assassinated in 2004.
Akhmad Kadyrov was killed when a bomb went off at a different stadium in Grozny. The assassination hurt attempts to bring the unstable region under control after two bloody separatist wars.
The hosts won 5-2 in an often comical match that featured out-of-shape players and sportingly inept officials. The thousands of local fans who turned out in the rain were treated to one moment of Maradona magic, however, when the 1986 World Cup winner knocked in a free kick from the edge of the penalty area.
In March, members of Brazil's 1994 and 2002 World Cup-winning teams, including Romario, also played an exhibition match in Grozny.
Officials have denied paying players to attend, but it has been difficult to otherwise explain the willingness of so many of the world's greatest soccer names to show up in a part of the world seldom associated with the game.
Their appearance has the double advantage of demonstrating Chechnya's worthiness as a venue to showcase such talent. Russia will host the World Cup for the first time in 2018.
Grozny is not on the list of 13 potential World Cup host cities, although local officials, including Kadyrov, are thought to be eager to change that. The 30,000-seater Akhmad Kadyrov Stadium conforms to FIFA standards and could be a World Cup venue if it increases capacity using temporary stands.
The stadium was christened in style Wednesday with an extravagant laser and fireworks opening ceremony. Banners bearing the slogan ''Russia-2018'' were draped around the tribunes. A video screened before the match praised Chechnya as a modern-day investment haven, with the horrors of two separatist wars in the past 16 years consigned firmly to the past.
Local media have reported that Wednesday's match was organized by a company belonging to a prominent Chechen businessman with considerable oil and construction assets. Switzerland-based Bulat Chagaev recently completed the takeover of Swiss top-flight team Neuchatel Xamax.
AP writer David Nowak in Moscow contributed to this report.