Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Salah is at center of a social media storm after being photographed with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny on Sunday.
The Egyptian national soccer team is basing itself in the Chechen capital during the World Cup – a decision that has aroused criticism from human rights groups. Its autocratic leader wasted no time in meeting up with the players, during a training session at the stadium named after his late father, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004.
Salah – the team's star player – was resting in the team hotel at the time, before apparently being woken and driven over to meet the Chechen strongman for an impromptu meet-and-greet. The New York Times reported that Kadyrov, 41, then made a grand entrance into the stadium alongside Salah, in front of a crowd of about 8,000 fans.
The leader grabbed Salah's arm and held it aloft. The soccer player is recovering from an injured shoulder, sustained in last month's Champions League final, and is a doubt for Egypt's first game, against Uruguay on Friday.
Kadyrov reportedly told Russian media that Salah is the "best footballer in the world and an overall perfect person." Salah's thoughts on the Chechen leader are unknown.
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Chechnya has long been criticized for its human rights record, which includes allegations of torture and repeated maltreatment of political opponents and the LGBT community. Kadyrov has said previously that there are no gay people in Chechnya.
New York Times soccer columnist Rory Smith tweeted an image of Salah with Kadyrov, calling it "as good an illustration of the World Cup as a political/propaganda tool as you'll get. Proximity to these players shows power, boosts profile, confers some form of legitimacy."
The Daily Telegraph quoted Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Europe and central Asia, Rachel Denber, as saying: "This is Kadyrov trying to capitalize on Chechnya being a team base to boost his own profile it was 100 percent predictable," she said. "He revels in the spotlight. He also has a ruthless grip on Chechnya. He has sought to obliterate any kind of political advocacy or human rights work."
Egypt soccer chief Eihab Leheita told the Associated Press on Monday he had "no regrets whatsoever" about being based in Grozny and refused to answer questions about Kadyrov's meeting with Salah, telling AP: "Ask FIFA for a comment."
Egypt picked Grozny as its training base back in February, out of a list of 67 possible options offered to the 32 World Cup finalists, and FIFA promised at the time it would monitor whether it was appropriate to allow a team to be based in the region.
Prior to their departure for Russia, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi had also held a photo-op with the team, making sure he was photographed with Salah – who is one of the most popular public figures in Egypt.