Egypt striker Mohamed Salah has been granted honorary citizenship by Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov at a banquet held to say goodbye to the World Cup squad.
Egypt’s squad adopted the Russian region’s capital, Grozny, as their base for the tournament and are about to leave for Volgograd, where they will play Saudi Arabia in their last group match on Monday.
The choice raised eyebrows because Mr Kadyrov has a poor human rights record and the Pharaohs had long distances to travel for matches elsewhere in Russia.
Team officials dismissed the criticism, saying the city is on Fifa’s list of approved bases and conditions there were perfect for the team.
The banquet on Friday night was held at Mr Kadyrov’s presidential palace in Grozny. The Chechen leader posed with the Liverpool star for pictures while pinning a medal on his chest.
“It is a deserved honour,” Mr Kadyrov wrote on Russian social media. He added that Salah’s presence had driven “unprecedented interest in football”.
He said he wants Egypt to return to Chechnya after the World Cup for a friendly against local club Akhmat Grozny – named after Mr Kadyrov’s father, who was assassinated in 2004.
A video clip of the ceremony showed Mr Kadyrov seated at the dinner table flanked by Salah and Hany Abo Rida, chairman of Egypt’s football federation.
It also showed the Chechen leader autographing an Akhmat Grozny jersey and presenting it to Salah amid polite applause from the rest of the Egyptian squad at separate tables.
It was the third time in two weeks that the Chechen leader, a Moscow-backed former rebel and a keen sports fan, has shown his admiration for 26-year-old Liverpool striker Salah.
He attended Egypt’s first practice session in Grozny on June 10. After about 30 minutes, he drove to the squad’s hotel where Salah, nursing a shoulder injury, was in his room.
The Chechen leader asked Salah to accompany him back to the stadium, where the two greeted the 5,000 fans watching Egypt practice.
According to Egypt’s football federation, the Chechen leadership sent a large cake to the team hotel on June 15 to mark Salah’s 26th birthday, which coincided with the Pharaohs’ 1-0 loss to Uruguay in their opening match.
Mr Kadyrov has a habit of hosting celebrities such as Salah. He also lured soccer greats Diego Maradona, Luis Figo and Steve McManaman to Grozny in 2011 for an exhibition game marking the opening of a new stadium.
Last year, Brazil’s Ronaldinho posted photos of himself with Mr Kadyrov during a visit to Grozny, and boxer Floyd Mayweather lavishly praised him while in the Chechen capital.
Mr Kadyrov is under sanctions imposed by the US, which accuses him of human rights violations. His rule has been marred by reports of extrajudicial killings and torture in the republic which saw two separatist wars.
Recently, he came under pressure when reports surfaced of a broad crackdown on gay people. He insists there are no gay people in the region.
Salah’s meetings with him have the potential to hurt the player’s image as something of an ambassador of moderate Islam.