The Tunisians were first to visit, followed by the Iranians, and then the Saudis. But it was the Egyptians, led by the Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah, who snatched up the dubious grand prize: a World Cup training base in Chechnya.
Once devastated by civil war, Chechnya is now the focus of intense international scrutiny over its crackdown on political opponents and gay people in this region in Russia’s North Caucasus.
But the controversy did not stop delegations from the Middle East from lining up to tour the stadium that the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov built and named after his father, the same pitch where he once reviewed more than 20,000 camouflaged soldiers likened to his personal guard.
For Kadyrov, who has spent a decade building a pervasive cult of personality at home, playing host to a national side in this year’s World Cup is a step toward his foreign policy ambitions: carving out a niche as Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East and the de facto voice of Russian Muslims abroad.
“We all know that our leader has a good relationship with Saudi kings, with princes, with the leadership of Egypt. We are happy Egypt has made the choice to come to us,” said Magomed Matsuev, the stadium’s director, sitting in his office under a portrait of Kadyrov and his father, Akhmad.
Matsuev once hoped to see Grozny named a World Cup host city, and in 2012 went so far as to bring down executives from the British architects KSS and engineers Mott MacDonald to consider a stadium expansion. But politics got in the way, he says, and Grozny was passed over.
Now, hosting a national team with a megastar like Salah, a world-famous Muslim footballer who celebrates each goal in a display of faith, has provided some consolation.
“Through football, we are going to show that we are developing, not going backward like the press says, trying to reignite old hatreds through disinformation,” Matsuev said.
Not far from the polished downtown, the Egyptian team, which arrives on Sunday, will be staying at a new luxury hotel built with investment from Dubai. Egyptian players will break the Ramadan fast with halal cuisine in a region where Kadyrov has made alcohol scarce, a pocket of Islamic worship in a country better known for a tradition of Orthodoxy or atheism.
This is the Chechnya built by Kadyrov, a 41-year-old gym fanatic who has become one of Russia’s most effective, and brutal, politicians. The former rebel turned satrap was given carte blanche to quell the region’s simmering Islamic insurgency after his father, the former president, was assassinated in a bomb blast in 2004.
Kadyrov has wielded faith as a tool to remake Chechnya, empowering loyal religious leaders and a local Sufi-infused Islam to cement his control. His religious fervour has sometimes veered into the bizarre: In 2015, he claimed to have received a blood transfusion from a descendant of the prophet Muhammad and said it had made him “the happiest man on earth”.