QUILICURA, Chile — Fog blankets the grassy soccer field surrounded by chickens and grazing cows as the players of Santiago Morning sprint through a practice game. It’s just another training session in Chile’s second-tier soccer league, but at least one man plays like a child running free in a pasture.
For Maxim Molokoedov, it’s a taste of temporary freedom after almost three years in prison — and a renewed shot at a professional soccer career that seemed to have been cut short.
Every evening, the Russian footballer sleeps behind bars. But every morning, Molokoedov walks out of his prison cell, ready to hit the field wearing the jersey of his professional soccer team.
The newest star of Santiago Morning is getting a second shot at life through soccer after he was arrested carrying six kilograms of cocaine that he planned to smuggle to Europe inside children’s books.
“I’m so happy, but I know I need to work hard. It’s been three years since I played at this level,” Molokoedov, 24, said in a thick accent, sometimes dropping in Spanish slang that he learned from other inmates. “I have a six-month contract. I’m looking forward, but I’m living a day at a time.”
Back home in Russia, Molokoedov had dropped out of school in his native St. Petersburg, but was recruited by second-division soccer team FK Pskov 747 because of his power and agility with a ball.
Traveling from Ecuador on his way to Madrid, and then Moscow in 2010, he was arrested during a stop at the airport in the Chilean capital of Santiago. He was sentenced to three years and one day.
Molokoedov said he was stupid, regrets it, and prefers not to talk about it, calling the experience “a bad memory.”
The first days at Santiago’s penitentiary were rough. Molokoedov slept in a crammed cell with four other prisoners, didn’t speak a word of Spanish and missed his family. He put his faith in a wooden rendering of St. Nicholas, known as the Wonderworker in the Russian Orthodox church.
The miracle came at the rocky prison yard’s pickup games. Inmates began offering him deodorant and a bar of soap to be treated to a few minutes of his dribbling skills and brutal right-footed shot.
Word got around about “El Ruso.” It reached Chilean national coach Claudio Borghi, who said Molokoedov was good enough to go pro. It also reached Franklin Lobos, a former Chilean professional player who volunteers at prisons and who vouched for the Russian.
With almost a year still to go on his sentence, Molokoedov does not yet qualify for Sunday passes or the daily passes many inmates get after they complete most of their term. But starting in late July, the warden began letting him leave the prison grounds to play soccer as long he was accompanied by a guard.
“It’s an exceptional situation that has to do with Maxim’s sporting abilities,” said Max Laulie, a spokesman for Chile’s prison police.
Such an arrangement would be difficult to imagine in countries with zero tolerance for drugs such as Singapore, Malaysia or Iran, where traffickers often get the death penalty or at least a lengthy prison term.
“We’re not trying to defend this practice but the objective behind it, which is rehabilitating people, in this case someone who has a shot at becoming a professional soccer player,” said Laulie. “The prison’s system defends this opportunity to reintegrate him into society. We just hope he does well.”
In his debut game, Molokoedov scored two goals against top division team C.D. Palestino.
“He’s proving that you can make mistakes, but if life gives you another chance, you have to take it. And if it is through soccer, which is what he loves, then even better yet,” said Santiago Morning Coach Hernan Ibarra.
The coach praised Molokoedov’s control of the ball, his ability to show up unexpectedly behind players and, most of all, his speed. He compares Molokoedov to Luis Figo, the Portuguese right-wing midfielder who was FIFA’s player of the year in 2001 and who played for Spanish rivals FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
“Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit, don’t forget that this kid has only been with us for a couple weeks,” Ibarra said. “But I see some positive physical and technical conditions … He’s an important player for any team in Chile and I have no doubt that he has everything he needs to become a professional player.”
During a recent practice session, a cross shot curled from the back and Molokoedov stopped the ball midfield using the inside of his right foot. Looking up to make a pass, he danced with the ball almost on tiptoes, recalling a member of the Bolshoi Ballet, before soccer reality set in and Molokoedov was taken down with a rough sliding tackle.
Nearing noon in the field at Quilicura, which means colorful rock in the language of the Mapuche Indians, it was time to return to the other rock, the grey one where he sleeps. Molokoedov stepped into a car flanked by the prison’s coach and a burly guard and looked out the window, again at the chickens and the cows.
Molokoedov could have returned to Russia this month. An amnesty law recently took effect to free up overcrowded prisons by sending prisoners to their home countries on the condition they don’t return to Chile for at least a decade.
Molokoedov chose to stay and play soccer for the Santiago Morning, which on Tuesday announced his official transfer from FK Pskov 747 had cleared, allowing him to play in tournaments in Chile. The club has declined to say how much he is paid.
“My life is here and I want to do things well,” he said.
Thirty minutes later, Molokoedov was back at the concrete fortress walls. A woman waiting in the line outside the prison recognized him, asked someone to take a picture of them with her cellphone, then kissed him on the check.
Molokoedov flushed and paced to the iron prison gate, where he raised his arms to be checked for weapons, passing an X-ray scanner decorated with a big silver soccer trophy on top.
Cleared, Molokoedov was back behind bars. But he knew he would be able to live out his soccer dreams far from the prison walls again tomorrow, out there, in the grassy field.