Fans welcome Carlos to North Caucasus

GROZNY - Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos made his Anzhi Makhachkala debut in front of a capacity crowd on Tuesday as officials and fans hailed the former World Cup winner's move to Russia's violence-wracked North Caucasus.

Roberto Carlos, 37, who helped Brazil win the 2002 World Cup, was given a warm welcome for the Russian Cup tie against Zenit St Petersburg which took place in Chechnya's capital Grozny and not in Anzhi's home republic of Dagestan, due to what media said was a recent spike in violence.

A decade after Russian troops drove separatists out of power in the second of two wars in Chechnya, an Islamist insurgency is bubbling in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus, where rebels want to carve out a separate state with Sharia law.

Though violence has quelled somewhat in Chechnya, Dagestan and other North Caucasus provinces are plagued by shootings, suicide bombs and grenade attacks.

Now, local leaders and fans see football as a new attempt to pacify the region.

"World stars are coming to us. We want to develop sport here, as a way to create stability," Chechnya's sports and tourism minister Khaidar Alkhanov told Reuters after the match which Zenit won 3-2.

Roberto Carlos, who played more than 100 times for Brazil, did not speak to reporters as he left the field with the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kadyrov, who runs Chechen club Terek Grozny, has been basking in the football limelight since he successfully secured the services of Dutchman Ruud Gullit to coach Terek earlier this year.

Unconfirmed Russian media reports say Gullit was offered €6 million a year to coach Terek, and that Roberto Carlos, who joined from Brazilian side Corinthians, will be paid €7.2 million for a two-and-a-half year contract.

Kadyrov's press service said on Tuesday that a selection of notable European players and Terek veterans have been chosen to form the "Ramzan Kadyrov team", who will play Brazil's 2002 World Cup winners, including Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, in a March friendly in Grozny.

"Football is needed to build peace and goodwill across the Caucasus," said Anzhi fan Asman Kadiyev, 47.

"Inviting world players is not only a big advertisement for sports in the region, but also a way to unite us," he added.

Though Russia did not qualify for the World Cup last year, the country is passionate about football and won the right to host the world's biggest sporting event in 2018.

Kadyrov proposed adding Grozny to the list of 13 host cities for the 2018 World Cup but Russia is unlikely to bring any matches to the North Caucasus.