Mohamed Salah was relaxing in his hotel room in Grozny when he was informed an important guest dropped in unexpectedly and was waiting for him in the lobby.
When the Egypt star forward went down, he found Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
The Moscow-backed former rebel had a favor to ask of Salah: Could he accompany him for the short drive to the stadium where the rest of Egypt’s World Cup squad was training and several thousand local fans were in attendance?
Salah obliged, and the two showed up at the stadium named after Kadyrov’s assassinated father to a standing ovation and loud cheers by the fans. Salah wore a white Egypt jersey, and his host was in a green-and-white tracksuit.
The Sunday evening episode sparked uproar on social media given the poor human rights record of the leader of Chechnya, and what was perceived as Kadyrov’s use of Salah to score a public relations boon.
Additionally, the episode may be well remembered for a long time as a textbook PR blunder on the part of the Egyptians.
“This is Kadyrov trying to capitalize on Chechnya being a team base to boost his own profile … it was 100 percent predictable,” said Rachel Denber, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for Europe and central Asia.
“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.”
Kadyrov, who sports the hallmark beard of the ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis, is a former rebel who switched his loyalties to Moscow. He has been the dominant figure in Chechnya since the 2004 assassination of his father, President Akhmad Kadyrov.
He has enforced strict Islamic rules in Chechnya, relying on his feared security forces to stifle any dissent. Moreover, his rule has been marred by numerous reports of extrajudicial killings and torture in the republic which saw two devastating separatist wars in the 1990s.
Recently, Kadyrov came under pressure when widespread reports surfaced of a broad crackdown on gays in his region. He insists, however, there are no gay people in the region.
While Kadyrov likely bolstered his standing among supporters by appearing with Salah, the latter may have diminished his as a kind of ambassador of moderate Islam.
Social media critics of the meeting said Salah was morally obliged to issue a statement on human rights in Chechnya. Others said Salah may have had no choice but to humor Kadyrov and pose for photos with him.
The Egyptian government shows zero tolerance for political Islam and has for years been fighting an insurgency led by Islamic militants and centered in the Sinai Peninsula. So the government and football officials should have known better when they allowed Egypt to make Grozny its World Cup base, to the surprise of many.
Eihab Leheita, the squad’s executive director, has been the chief defender of the decision to select Grozny, a mostly Muslim city.
Speaking to The Associated Press in Grozny on Monday, Leheita said he has “no regrets whatsoever” about the choice of Grozny as a base for the all-Muslim squad. But he brushed off a question about the encounter between Salah and Kadyrov. He said, “Ask FIFA for a comment.”