Mo Salah, Now Starring in Chechnya
GROZNY, Russia — Ramzan A. Kadyrov did not sustain himself as the autocratic leader of the Chechen republic by failing to understand the value of propaganda and spectacle.
So he was not to be deterred when Egypt’s national soccer team arrived here at its World Cup training camp on Sunday, and the whole squad showed up for an evening workout — except for the star forward Mohamed Salah.
The bearded Mr. Kadyrov, 41, left the field in his turquoise and white track suit. Soon, he returned, this time making a grand entrance with Mr. Salah before about 8,000 fans, posing for photographers and television cameras, even grabbing the Liverpool star’s arm and raising it as if crowning a boxing champion.
Turko Daudov, a prominent adviser to Mr. Kadyrov, said Mr. Salah had been napping at the nearby team hotel and had been awakened and driven to the stadium in Mr. Kadyrov’s car.
Both the soccer star and the regional leader are in urgent need of their own forms of rehabilitation. Mr. Salah is attempting to heal his injured shoulder in time for Egypt’s opening World Cup match on Friday against Uruguay in Yekaterinburg.
Mr. Kadyrov is seeking a more elusive kind of rehab: repairing an image of ruthlessness and oppression as he seeks to draw more investors and tourists to this formerly war-ravaged capital in the North Caucasus region.
In recent years, he has convinced a parade of athletes and celebrities to come here to take his hand and his money. Sports like soccer, boxing and mixed martial arts serve as Mr. Kadyrov’s passions and attempts at international legitimacy, economic development, enhancing his cult of personality at home and extending his brand of macho nationalism.
“It’s all about a positive image of the Chechen Republic,” Jambulat Umarov, Chechnya’s minister of national policy, press and information, said of hosting Egypt’s training camp. “It’s about dispelling myths.”
So far, Mr. Kadyrov has struggled to burnish that image.
Chechnya was involved in two brutal separatist wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, Mr. Kadyrov, a former rebel whose powerful family aligned in 1999 with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has aggressively suppressed dissent.
Human Rights Watch called Egypt’s decision to train here “absolutely shocking and outrageous,” and it has called for the team to find a new base camp, saying that Mr. Kadyrov “exerts a ruthless grip on the region where extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances are common” and there is “near-total repression of critics, journalists and L.G.B.T. people.”
Last December, Mr. Kadyrov was added to a United States sanctions list over rights abuses. His Facebook and Instagram accounts, which had four million followers between them, were deactivated. Days later, in what some activists saw as retribution, Oyub Titiev, the Chechen head of a rights group called Memorial, was arrested, ostensibly on charges of possessing marijuana. (Drug charges are a favorite tactic for jailing critics here.) He faces a maximum prison term of 10 years.
Unable to persuade Egypt to train elsewhere, Human Rights Watch has been urging FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, to attempt to get Mr. Titiev freed. Otherwise, anyone with a complaint regarding a FIFA-related activity here — a stadium worker, hotel worker or a protester — will have no place to turn for redress, said Rachel Denber, deputy director for the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
“FIFA really needs to step up and lean on Putin,” Ms. Denber said.
Mr. Umarov, the minister, bristled that Human Rights Watch should decide which team trains where, and he said FIFA could ask for Mr. Titiev’s release, but “we have a constitution and laws that are higher than FIFA.”
Last year, when informed about the detention and torture of about 100 gay men and continued harassment of journalists in Chechnya, FIFA noted that its policy on human rights “prohibited discrimination of any kind” and said of the abuses, “we firmly condemn them.”
Asked recently about the propriety of a World Cup team training in Chechnya, a FIFA communications representative said in an email, “Through its activities, FIFA does not legitimize any regimes.”
As Egypt’s team arrived near the end of the holy month of Ramadan, it found in Grozny comfort in a fellow Sunni Muslim region, convenient access to one of the largest mosques in Europe and halal food. But there are practical reasons for the team’s choice of a base, too: the players are staying in a new, five-star hotel with no other guests, and the stadium they are using for practices is only a five-minute walk from the hotel.
Ihab Leheta, the general manager of Egypt’s national team, declined to comment on the objections by Human Rights Watch, saying recently in Cairo: “We chose from the list FIFA gave us. If people have a problem with Grozny, they should speak to FIFA.”
The Pharaohs, as Egypt’s team is known, have qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. Their hopes depend largely on Mr. Salah, who scored 44 goals for Liverpool during the 2017-18 season and was named the top player in England’s Premier League. He led his team to the Champions League final last month before injuring his shoulder early in that match against eventual champion Real Madrid.
If Mr. Salah can recover sufficiently, Egypt holds reasonable hope of advancing beyond the group stage of the World Cup after round-robin matches against Uruguay, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
This week, Egyptian national flags line the road from the airport to central Grozny. Billboards depict its players in celebration. The managers at the team hotel speak Arabic and English. Security, medical and firefighting personnel are on duty around the clock. Even traffic patterns have been adjusted to accommodate the team.
This lavish welcome is an attempt to show outsiders that Chechnya is politically and economically stable, Mr. Umarov, the minister, said, adding, “It shows that big stars who are famous worldwide feel safe in Chechnya.”
This is hardly the first time Mr. Kadyrov is making a theatrical attempt to ingratiate himself with the international sports world. In 2011, he coaxed the retired Argentine great Diego Maradona to play an exhibition match here in an effort to show that Chechnya had recovered from its wars.
According to various accounts, Mr. Kadyrov captained the other team and either scored a hat trick or assisted on numerous goals in a 5-2 victory against a defense that was generous to the point of deferential.
That same year, the actors Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme were among a widely-criticized group of celebrities who attended a lavish 35th birthday celebration here for Mr. Kadyrov. Some of the celebrities were reported to have been paid as much as $500,000 for their presence. Last December, the boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. visited Mr. Kadyrov and called him “my buddy.”
Mr. Kadyrov will seek similar public-relations benefits from Mr. Salah’s presence and will be thrilled if Mr. Salah expresses that Grozny is safe, developed and culturally pleasing, said Karim Zidan, a Canadian-based journalist who has written extensively about sports and politics in Chechnya.
At times when Mr. Kadyrov faces harsh criticism, Mr. Zidan said, “You can believe he’ll have some celebrities in or football matches or fights going on to distract his citizens and people around the world from taking notice.”
The outreach to the Muslim world is also an attempt by Mr. Kadyrov to make himself the leader of all of Russia’s estimated 20 million Muslims, to mixed results. His forays into soccer, for example, have been both ambitious and clumsy. He is a former president of the local soccer team, then known as F.C. Terek and, since last year, as F.C. Akhmad in honor of his father, Akhmad H. Kadyrov, a previous president of Chechnya who was assassinated in 2004.
After the two Chechen wars, the local club became a symbol of resilience and revitalization in a city that had been decimated. In 2011, Mr. Kadyrov completed construction of a 30,000-seat stadium and brought in Maradona, retired European stars and players from Brazil’s 2002 World Cup championship team for exhibition matches. He also hired the former Dutch star Ruud Gullit as coach of the local club, which plays in Russia’s Premier League.
Mr. Gullit’s tenure was short and strange. He complained to The Daily Mail of London about training conditions, broken promises about player acquisitions and the inability to get a drink. After six months, he was gone.
The team posted on its website an excoriating note: “Gullit must know that he was invited not to nightclubs and discos to disappear, but to work in a football club, in this case to achieve a result. Yes, we have no drugs, no indecent night life, which in the Netherlands and in Europe there is lots.”
The strange events did not stop after Mr. Gullit departed.
In late 2011, in a match of reserve players in Grozny, a rival forward named Spartak Gogniev from F.C. Krasnodar in the Russian league was ejected after arguing with the referee. Video showed him being punched by a group of men on the sideline.
What happened next in the stadium tunnel, according to a complaint filed by the Russian players’ union, was that Mr. Gogniev “was apprehended by a group of men dressed in police uniforms.
“They grabbed him and dragged him aside,” the report said, “where they proceeded to beat him with batons” and left him with “broken ribs, a broken nose, severe bruising and a concussion.”
In 2013, Mr. Kadyrov, upset at the referee in a match against FC Rubin Kazan, admitted that it was he who shouted over the stadium loudspeaker, “The ref’s been bought off! You’re an ass!” He later apologized.
During the World Cup, Egyptian soccer players will be the most high profile athletes in the region. Of particular interest will be a match against Russia on June 19, and the possibility that Egypt could advance while knocking Russia out of the tournament.
There are political angles to this story as well as sporting ones. Mr. Kadyrov has served as an emissary for Mr. Putin while forging relationships with Middle Eastern countries like the United Arab Emirates, which financed the Egyptian team’s hotel here. And now Mr. Kadyrov has an opportunity to seek closer ties to the authoritarian Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who would surely be elated if the Pharaohs advanced.
But that could leave Mr. Kadyrov in a somewhat awkward position if Egypt’s success came at the expense of Russia, and by extension, Mr. Putin. His advisers said this week that, were that to occur, he would feel disappointed for Russia but joyful for Egypt.
Mr. Zidan, the journalist, said: “Kadyrov walks a fine line, presenting himself as an ethnic Chechen and a loyalist of Putin and Russia. I wonder how he really views this, if he would be so upset if Russia was knocked out. It’s a little complicated.”
Nour Youssef contributed reporting from Cairo.