Playing Behind Bars: From Convict to Professional Footballer

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This is the story of Russian footballer – turned convict – turned footballer Maxim Molokoedov.

Born in St Petersburg, Maxim’s aptitude for football was spotted at an early age. He worshipped Arsenal and Russia winger Andrei Arshavin, and tried to emulate him in the academies of Zenit and Dinamo St Petersburg. But his dreams of being Russian football’s next star were shattered when he was offloaded to second division side Pskov-747. Now 20, Molokoedov found himself at a crossroads in his career. Then came the big-money offer. Except it wasn’t from a football club. It was the Russian mafia who came knocking. Maxim accepted the offer without hesitation, not realising that his whole world was about to capitulate around him.

His mission was a high-risk, high-reward one. The task was seemingly simple, to him at least. Board a plane in Ecuador, fly to Madrid, while carrying 6 kilos of cocaine in a suitcase hidden beneath children’s books. Sounds straight-forward doesn’t it? The only hitch in the plan was that the flight included one stop, Santiago in Chile. Once the package was delivered, Molokoedov planned to return to Russia. He would weigh up his options – To buy a flat, or a fancy new car? But trouble soon ensued, and as soon as his new life had started, it was over. While sitting in Santiago airport awaiting his connecting flight, military dogs and police surrounded the footballer-turned-drug-runner. His nightmare had begun. He was apprehended by the authorities in Chile, and convicted of drug trafficking. Unable to speak a word of Spanish, Molokoedov was forced to plead guilty, with little other option. The former footballer was thrown into one of Chile’s most infamous prisons, Santiago 1. The vast majority of his inmates were rapists and murderers. The nightmare had just got even worse.After being sentenced in Chilean prison for 3 years and one day, Molokoedov was relocated just around the corner from Santiago 1, to the ex Penitenciaria, Much to his rather muted delight. This was a bitter-sweet moment for the felon, as he managed to escape the inevitable horrors of Santiago 1, yet he was still imprisoned. His life was flipped upside-down after this charade, but it turned out be a blessing in disguise, as the events that followed would re-write any Chilean football history books.

Molokoedov soon found that he was not cut out for prison life, and he began counting the days until his release. The worst part about the predicament Maxim found himself in was his inability to communicate with other prisoners. “I’ve gone months without speaking to anyone” he told one interviewer.

“I’d watch people around me talking, but couldn’t understand anything of what they were saying. Being in jail is hard, but if you don’t speak the language, then it’s hell.” Slowly but surely, Molokoedov began to pick up small words and phrases from his cellmates. He would point to objects in newspapers and they would tell him the correct Spanish pronunciation. The first two words he learned were ‘Yes’ and ‘Sir’. These two words would become his bread and butter for the remainder of his tenure in Chile. But Molokoedov’s passion for life was restored when he overheard inmates talking about an upcoming indoor football tournament. He immediately put his name down, he could not pass up on an opportunity like this.

Within minutes of Maxim playing his first match, inmates and staff members could see that the Russian midfielder had something special. Every time he was unmarked he would shout “Yes, sir! Yes, sir!” much to everyone’s else’s amusement. He was given the nickname ‘El Rucio’ meaning ‘The Blonde’. El Rucio was soon a widely known name throughout the cell blocks of ex Penitenciaria, and soon enough, word got out that there was a highly talented footballer within the confinements of the prison.

 After a number of months of solitude, Molokoedov befriended a Russian priest who visited the prison. This priest began to regularly visit him, often acting as a messenger for the convict, passing on letters to Molokoedov’s family to let them know of his current situation. Maxim was a religious man, and was the only Orthodox of the 3,000 inmates of the prison. As he began to learn more Spanish, he was able to talk to inmates more frequently. He often had discussions with other prisoners regarding football and religion.

Frank Lobos is a former Chile international turned scout and agent. He sponsors a rehab programme that hosts five-a-side football tournaments in prisons. When he heard about Molokoedov’s abilities, he felt compelled to see them himself. Impressed upon his visit, Lobos invited Chile manager Claudio Borghi to see one of the prison matches. Borghi was aroused by this Russian convict’s footballing skills, and after the match he gave Maxim a Chile jersey and told him not to give up. Only a few days later, Santiago Morning enquired about Molokoedov’s potential availability as a signing. One thing led to another, and Maxim was eventually granted permission to train with Morning, provided he was under constant supervision, with the club taking the fall if anything bad were to happen. Lobos picks up Maxim every morning at 8 and takes him to breakfast, training and lunch. Sounds like a normal enough day at the office, until you realise Maxim returns to prison after work. But there was one more fork in the road for Molokoedov. He was faced with a big dilemma after serving two thirds of his sentence. As a foreigner, he was decreed to be eligible for amnesty, as his passport had expired. He was given the choice of moving back to Russia for the next 10 years a free man, or to stay in prison and attempt to reinsert himself into society as a footballer. He chose the latter.

Then came Molokoedov’s first game for Santiago Morning. He only managed to make the bench, but that was an achievement in itself. Morning were 1-0 down in a friendly against Palestino, and Hernan Ibarra – Morning’s manager – sent the Russian midfielder on. He scored twice and the game ended 2-2. “This guy is special” was the general consensus and feeling that all the Morning players and staff held.

A fitting end to a scintillating story, isn’t it?

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