In this photo taken on Sunday, June 10, 2018, Egyptian national soccer team player and Liverpool's star striker Mohammed Salah, right, and Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, greets soccer fans as they arrive to attend the Egypt national soccer team training session in Grozny, Russia. Egyptian national soccer team will compete in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The 21st World Cup begins on Thursday, June 14, 2018, when host Russia takes on Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo)

Column: Salah suckered in inauspicious World Cup start

June 12, 2018 - 12:40 pm
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MOSCOW (AP) — Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho, boxer Floyd Mayweather and now, at the World Cup in Russia, Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah. The common denominator: By cozying up with Ramzan Kadyrov, they have all played their part in making the Chechen leader accused of terrible human rights abuses seem like a normal sports-loving guy.

Which, of course, is the point.

It's far better, if you are Kadyrov, to be seen as a friend to the rich and famous than as a brutal tyrant. That is how he is described by his many critics outside of Russia and the Russian republic he rules with support from the Kremlin.

Those critics include the U.S. government. It has had sanctions in place against Kadyrov since December , accusing him of "being responsible for extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights."

It isn't clear whether Salah knew all of this when Kadyrov turned up Sunday at his hotel in Grozny , the Chechen capital which the Egypt team has chosen as its base for its first World Cup since 1990. Kadyrov asked for face-time with Salah, by far the team's biggest name and an icon in the Muslim world and beyond, and whisked him away to a stadium photo-op.

Even if Salah did know about Kadyrov's unsavory reputation, even if he did feel uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with him, could he have refused? How does one say 'No,' diplomatically and safely, to someone like Kadyrov in his own fiefdom?

Either way, it was poor optics.

Arguably not quite as horrifying as black-and-white images of the England football team and other athletes raising their arms in Nazi salutes when competing in Germany in the 1930s. But shocking nonetheless.

As the breakout star in European football this season, and as a Muslim adored for his skills, Salah has been credited for breaking down cultural barriers and as an antidote to Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in post-Brexit Britain, where he plays for Liverpool.

But some of that admiration evaporated when Salah turned up with Kadyrov at the stadium and held hands with the former Islamist rebel.

It shouldn't have come as a shock that Kadyrov would seek to exploit Salah like this. Picking Grozny as a World Cup base was criticized months ago as an outrageous choice by human rights experts who warned that tournament organizer FIFA was playing into Kadyrov's hands. Critics call it "sports-washing."

"We warned them ... that Kadyrov was going to wrap himself in the FIFA flag and bring ignominy to this World Cup, and that has absolutely happened," says Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

"This puts players in a really invidious position. Are you supposed to decline when the brutal ruler of Chechnya shows up at your door?"

For Egypt, Grozny offers the advantages of a familiar Middle Eastern atmosphere, halal food, and a five-star hotel with Arabic-speaking staff that is both close to the airport and the stadium where the team trains.

But, as Salah discovered, it also harbored a trap.

Using the appeal of sports, especially football, to make themselves and their regimes look good is one of the oldest tricks in the despots' handbook.

Benito Mussolini did it at the 1934 World Cup, staged and won by Italy.

Adolf Hitler tried to do it with the Berlin Olympics in 1936, only for Alabama sharecroppers' son Jesse Owens to steal the show by winning four gold medals.

And Kadyrov has done it repeatedly with footballers and others willing to play his game in Chechnya.

A 2011 soccer match featuring Maradona, Luis Figo and other retired players to mark the opening of Grozny's 30,000-seat stadium helped Kadyrov demonstrate a sense of restored normalcy in the city shattered by years of fighting. Former Liverpool midfielder Steve McManaman took part and enthused: "I thought it would be fun."

Ronaldinho gushed about his welcome in Grozny in 2017 and posted photos of himself with Kadyrov .

Mayweather gave Kadyrov a vocal endorsement, saying "this is my buddy, this is my guy" when they were filmed together in Chechnya last year.

Salah didn't go quite that far.

But at a World Cup where he is billed as a major draw, pictures of him with Kadyrov were an unappealing start.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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