Until a couple of years ago, nobody had heard of Anzhi Makhachkala, not even ex-pat Russians living in Britain. “Anzhi who?,” was the response when you asked any London-based refugee from Moscow about the audacious club from the Republic of Dagestan that was signing big-name players to appear in front of sparse crowds in “the most dangerous place in Europe”.
Look at the Russian Premier League and you’ll see that the experiment has failed. Anzhi are 14th in the 16-team division and haven’t won in their seven league games this season. Anzhi’s playing budget, inflated by the investment of Suleyman Kerimov, has been cut from £ 120m to £50m in one foul swoop. This is due to a drastic change in fortune for Kerimov, who, according to rumours, has taken a £375m hit on his part-ownership in potash company Uralkali after news broke of an investigation of corruption at the Moscow-based company.
It gets worse for Kerimov, who has now been placed on Interpol’s most wanted list. He’s an oligarch and has his gold-plated fingers in many pies, including philanthropic ventures such as the Suleyman Kerimov Foundation. Like most oligarchs, however, there’s always the threat that someone’s out to get him, somewhere.
The impact of Kerimov’s problems has resulted in a fire sale at Anzhi and one of the chief beneficiaries has been Chelsea, who picked up Samuel Eto’o and Willian on the cheap.
It’s not difficult to imagine that Eto’o and Willian couldn’t wait to get away. Although the Anzhi mercenaries were flown into Dagestan from Moscow, the prospect of playing behind the protection of maximum security in a terrorism-torn zone, must have been daunting. And on top of that racism is rife in Russian football and players like Eto’o were an obvious target.
Dagestan has witnessed low-level guerrilla warfare for the past 13 years that has spilled over from Chechnya. The two suspects of the Boston bombings earlier this year were said to have lived in Dagestan for a while.
So why would anyone want to invest in a club in a bid to make them a European super power? There was a school of thought that it was nothing but an expensive publicity stunt, designed to improve the image of Dagestan ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. It’s more likely a “bread and circuses” ploy to distract Dagestan’s 2.9 million people from the corruption and sheer poverty of the region.
In fact the football club believed that Anzhi could play a big part in improving the morale in Dagestan. Kerimov spent heavily to bring some big names to the club, but it was almost without exception the money that lured the players east. They even managed to persuade Guus Hiddink to take on the manager’s job.
Despite the cash, though, Anzhi couldn’t quite make it to the top and they finished eighth and third in the past two seasons. With Kerimov pulling the plug, it is unlikely that Anzhi will be contenders for honours in 2013-14.
At the back of the mind of everyone who follows a club backed by a Russian – watch out, Chelsea! – there must be a niggling concern that the Kerimov story shows that if a benefactor has a change of luck it could be devastating for the club. Although Kerimov’s financial situation has been well publicized, the cynics have suggested that he has merely run out patience. It will be interesting to see if it has a knock-on affect in Russian football.
But you don’t have to be Russian to have a lack of patience – it is a quality stalking the boardrooms of football. It will only be a matter of time before an “impatient” owner sacks the next unlucky manager. Kerimov’s fairly rapid cut-backs are a chilling reminder that a club’s success hangs by a thread, or a shovelful of potash…