By CATHAL KELLY
Tuesday, June 26, 2018
TORONTO -- As Mohamed Salah trudged off the field after another embarrassing loss ended his World Cup on Monday, some rando on the sidelines decided it was a good time to ask for a selfie.
"Ask" is too generous. The guy rolled up on Salah with his phone extended, took the picture and then kissed the Egyptian star on the cheek. Salah neither co-operated nor demurred. He'd stopped caring.
Symbolically, it was a fitting way to round things out. Despite his best efforts, Salah's popularity has caused him all sorts of trouble in Russia.
It began when Egyptian soccer authorities agreed to base their World Cup training camp in Chechnya.
It was an odd choice for two reasons: Chechnya has no role in the tournament, and the region is run by a complete loon.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is a grinning brute who has never missed an opportunity to cozy up to a bold-faced name. He has a particular affinity for athletes.
He has claimed to be great friends with Mike Tyson. When video of the pair mock sparring was released last year, a spokesperson for Tyson explained the former champ "doesn't research every person he meets."
If he'd spent a couple of minutes on Wikipedia, Tyson might've had second thoughts.
Kadyrov has been widely accused of a raft of human-rights violations, including mass murder. In his defence - and based on his astoundingly active Instagram account - Kadyrov, 41, does appear to be fond of children and likes wrestling large snakes.
Salah presented a unique opportunity for Kadyrov's continuing effort at international image laundering. Since assuming power in his late 20s, Kadryov has styled himself a defender of the Islamic faith. Now someone had been foolish enough to drop the world's most famous Muslim athlete in his lap.
So where Salah went, Kadyrov would appear.
He was filmed at an Egypt practice taking a proprietary interest in the proceedings. He held Salah's hand aloft for the cameras, as if he was somehow partly responsible for his excellence. Salah managed a smile, but you could see a thought balloon starting to form over his head.
He threw Salah a banquet and made him an honorary Chechen citizen. Salah was seated at Kadryov's right hand, while the rest of the Egyptian squad looked on awkwardly from the cheap seats.
Kadyrov took forever pinning a medal on Salah's chest, pulling him this way and that to get better purchase on his T-shirt. He gave Salah a jersey from the Grozny-based team, FC Akhmat, named after his own father. Kadyrov made a point of autographing it first.
By this point, Salah's smile was gone. He had adopted the faraway look of a man trying to picture himself in his happy place.
Perhaps he'd done some research.
Meanwhile, at the actual World Cup, Egypt was taking it right on the chin.
A year ago, Egypt was an international non-entity. Salah changed that. You could argue he's had the best nine months of anyone anywhere. And we're not just talking about people who play soccer for a living. I mean out of all human beings.
Egypt had never won a World Cup game, but the auguries were hopeful. They were drawn in the tournament's weakest group.
With Salah on their side, a bunch of unthinkable soccer things had suddenly become quite thinkable.
But Salah was injured upon arrival and missed the first game, a loss. He scored in the second match, but Egypt was swamped by Russia and eliminated. He had to return to Chechnya to wait five days before playing a meaningless third encounter.
Then video of the citizenship ceremony was released.
Salah was apparently incensed. Now he understood. He'd been used as a piece of human agitprop by the most unsavoury sort of character. His own national federation enthusiastically abetted the charade.
Reports leaked that, still only 26, Salah was considering quitting international football.
The Egyptians denied the rumours. The Chechens did so as well, which really didn't help. Salah said nothing.
He was left off the starting lineup submitted before Monday's game against Saudi Arabia - a clerical error, Egypt said. He did start and scored. It was a phenomenal effort, brought down at full speed from a long pass hoofed up the field, then chipped over the goalkeeper while two defenders pressed him. It's sure to be one of the goals of the tournament. Salah conspicuously refused to celebrate it.
On an aesthetic level, the game was atrocious. Saudi Arabia won on the final move of the match. Egypt, a soccer-obsessed country the size of Germany, maintains a World Cup record no better than Canada's.
Salah's expression afterward was blank.
He'd already checked out.
He has made a great effort to show well for his country, his culture and his religion, while avoiding politics. It's an unfair thing to ask of anyone, but he did it anyway.
It had been a complete success. He's so much an avatar of his country that the British Museum displays a pair of his cleats in its Egyptian collection.
Even more impressively, he had fashioned himself into one of those famous people - almost always sportsmen - who transcend partisan concerns.
He was on the same path as a Pele or a Muhammad Ali, someone who knocks down the barriers that divide us and wins new friends simply by being.
That's been ruined now. And for what?
So that some megalomaniac could add to his ego wall.
Salah should have been one of the bright spots at this World Cup, regardless of how Egypt did. Instead, through no fault of his own, he leaves it with his reputation in tatters.
He still represents something universal in the global imagination - but now it is that no good deed goes unpunished.
Liverpool FC and Egyptian soccer phenomenon Mohamed Salah reacts after Saudi Arabia's Salem Aldawsari scored his side's second goal during a World Cup Group A match in Volgograd, Russia, on Monday. Egypt's loss to the Saudis marks the end of Salah's brief 2018 World Cup run.
ANDREW MEDICHINI/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Salah greet fans as they arrive to attend a team training session in Grozny, Russia, on June 10.