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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kalmykia Pins Soccer Dreams on Maradona

Diego Maradona lifted the World Cup trophy for Argentina in 1986 and led Naples to their first Italian league championship. Now Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the Kalmyk Republic, hopes soccer's aging bad-boy can do the same for Uralan Elista.


Ilyumzhinov, the high-profile president of the republic in the southeast of Russia that borders Chechnya, has invited Maradona to the Kalmykian capital of Elista next March, when reportedly he will try to sign him to a multi-million dollar deal to play and coach the local soccer team, Uralan.


Alexei Kucherenko, Ilyumzhinov's personal press attache, told The Moscow Times on Tuesday that a preliminary agreement has been signed with Maradona regarding his forthcoming trip to Russia.


"We have a signed contract with Maradona and his manager where we'll pay for all the expenses during his visit, while in return Diego will do promotional appearances in Moscow and Elista," he said. "Our president wants to give a nice present to thousands of soccer fans in Kalmykia, who could witness a great player firsthand."


The soccer-crazy Kalmykia received international attention during this summer's European Championship in England when locals flocked to television screens to watch the progress of the French team and its top player Jouri Djorkaeff, who had a Kalmyk grandfather.


But Kucherenko warned that despite the written agreement, he could not guarantee the Argentinean's visit.


"You can never be 100 percent sure with Maradona," he said. "Anything can happen between now and next March."


Ilyumzhinov, who is also a president of FIDE, the world governing body for chess, also tried in November to attract the often troubled superstar to Kalmykia.


"We had Diego's agreement to come, but unfortunately certain events have prevented his arrival," said Kucherenko, referring to the arrest of Maradona's personal manager for reportedly running a drug cartel in Argentina.


Uralan finished in seventh place in Russia's Division One last season, but the ambitious president wants to see his club among the elite Russian teams in the premier league by next year and has provided Kalmykia's top club with a budget close to $5 million.


"Our goal clearly is the top echelon of Russian soccer," said Badma Koldayev, soccer columnist for the newspaper Izvestia Kalmykii. "The plan also includes building a new stadium, hotel and major renovation of the team's training facilities."


"Money is not a problem," Kucherenko said matter-of-factly. "As everyone knows, Ilyumzhinov paid a non-existent $100,000 Soviet debt to [former world chess champion Bobbie] Fisher out of his own pocket this year and guaranteed a $5 million prize for the World Chess Championship in Elista next December."


Kucherenko said the main reason for attracting Maradona to Kalmykia is that besides being a great player, "our president likes Diego as a person and thinks he has a lot in common with Maradona."


According an article in Tuesday's Sport-Express newspaper, Ilyumzhinov also wants to invite Pele to Kalmykia as a guest. "The King of Soccer," who now heads the Sports Ministry in Brazil, plans to visit Moscow in the coming week, the paper reported.


"The Pele story is news to me," said Kucherenko.


Both the Argentinean and Brazilian embassies in Moscow said they had no information regarding Maradona or Pele's impending visits to Russia.