13 Jun 2018 - 20:02
Grozny is a World Cup home away from home for Egypt squad
By HAMZA HENDAWI | AP
GROZNY, Russia: The Egypt squad in Russia for its first World Cup since 1990 has a nickname besides the Pharaohs.
The country's all-Muslim squad has become known as "Al-Sajedeen," or the prostrators - a reference to their customary on-pitch prayer when they score. Team members, in keeping up the squad's decades-old immersion in religious rituals, pray together during camp, believing that skills alone don't win games.
Perhaps no surprise, then, that Egypt chose mostly Muslim Grozny as its base during its campaign in Russia.
Egyptian football officials insist it was a perfect choice.
The team's five-star hotel, where they are the first guests, is a five-minute walk from the practice pitch. The city's airport is only a 10-minute drive from the team's hotel, which features Islamic interior design and staff who can speak a multitude of languages, including English and Arabic.
And, the food is halal.
"We believe we have selected the right place from a technical viewpoint," the Pharaohs' executive director Ihab Leheta told reporters this week.
The team received a lavish reception on arrival here last weekend on a chartered flight from Cairo. Local dignitaries welcomed them and a folk dance troupe put on a show on the tarmac.
The streets are lined with giant billboards of Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah and his teammates. Egypt's red, black and white flags are hoisted on light poles. When the Pharaohs held their first training session here, at least 5,000 fans bought tickets to watch.
Egypt opens its World Cup campaign on Friday against Uruguay in Yekaterinburg.
Many Chechen soccer fans say they'll be supporting Egypt rather than Russia, which fought separatist Chechen rebels in two wars in the 1990s, when the teams meet June 19 in a Group A match at St. Petersburg.
The Islamic character of Chechnya cannot be missed. Many of the men have beards, a hallmark of Islamic piety, and many of the women wear ankle-long dresses and hijab.
But being in Grozny also means flights of up to almost three hours for group matches. And the stay of the Pharaohs in the city has also attracted the attention of regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Moscow-backed former rebel whose rule has been marred by a poor rights record.
He had a meeting at the hotel with Salah, the Egyptian team's biggest name and an icon in the Muslim world and beyond, and the pair later appeared at a practice session for a photo-op on Sunday in the stadium named after Kadyrov's assassinated father.
It may have been perceived by Kadyrov's backers as a PR coup, but the images sparked uproar on social media.
The choice of Grozny raised some concerns, and Human Rights Watch unsuccessfully tried to persuade Egypt and FIFA to take the city off the list of possible bases for the tournament's 32 teams.
For the squad from Egypt, a mainly Muslim nation of some 100 million which has experienced a rise in religious fundamentalism since the 1970s, it was a comfortable home away from home in the week leading up to its World Cup return.