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Chechen leader eclipses soccer stars with hat-trick

Soccer legend 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.

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Football legend Diego Maradona, right, fights for the ball against Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov, left, during a demonstration soccer match between Maradona's all-star squad of former internationals and a team of local officials and players in Grozny, Chechnya, on May 11.

The 50-year-old Argentine icon was joined by Luis Figo, Steve McManaman, Franco Baresi and other former stars of the game. But they were all outshone by Ramzan Kadyrov, the feared political leader of the volatile Russian republic, who scored a hat-trick at the stadium dedicated to his father and predecessor, who was assassinated in 2004.

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.

S. Dal / Reuters

A light show before the match marking the opening of the new Akhmad-Hajji Kadyrov stadium in the Chechen capital Grozny on May 11.

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.

Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters

Ramzan Kadyrov, left, shares a joke with Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona during the match.

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.

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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.