Anzhi Makhachkala’s fleeting moment in the sun

Anzhi Makhachkala’s fleeting moment in the sun

Founded in 1991 in the Republic of Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala, the biggest achievement FC Anzhi could boast until 2011 was the Russian Cup final in 2001, a game that the ‘Yellow-Greens’ lost on penalties to one of the country’s most efficient team of that epoch, Lokomotiv Moscow.

Nearly a decade after that day a humble man, who was considered among the most successful businessmen in Russia, took over the Caucasian club with the simple aim of creating a future littered with silverware. After being rumoured to have failed in a takeover of Roma and Bari, as well as Torpedo Moscow, Suleyman Kerimov, who made his fortune investing in large corporations’ shares, switched to his native region, one that could have only been dreaming about such an astounding financial backing.

The Dagestan local authorities handed over all 100 per cent of Anzhi’s shares to him for free in exchange for his help in the club and in football’s future in the wider Republic.

Barely had the people in Dagestan learned about their patron’s arrival in Makhachkala had local authorities pleaded en-masse for his investment. To the locals, Anzhi, whose name is translated as ‘Pearl’ in the local language, was the object of common adoration, and everybody cheered the fact Kerimov was going to build a major club in Dagestan.

Life seemed to turn to a fairy-tale for the fans when, in February 2011, it was announced that a World Cup winner by the name of Roberto Carlos was about to enrich Anzhi’s squad. Then 37, Carlos became the highest-paid player in the Russian Premier League. Although the supporters would have been happy with merely the Brazilian’s arrival, the best squad signings were yet to come.

As summer approached Yuri Zhirkov – despite the Russian hardcore ultras’ protests against his move to the inimical Caucasian club – swapped his place on the bench at Chelsea for a starting berth in Makhachkala. Virtually anyone that then went to play for Anzhi was instantly accused by some quarters of greed, if not treachery. For many Russian fans, big names like Zhirkov had turned their back on the Motherland for a paycheque in Dagestan.

However, Kerimov kept his greatest surprise until the end of August. A hurricane swept through the media when a personal jet with Samuel Eto’o on board landed in Makhachkala, with the Cameroonian arriving not merely to smile at the cameras and wave his hand, but to play for Anzhi.

People in Russia were shocked; nobody could’ve predicted that one day a modest team like Anzhi would be able to invite the world’s top stars to their home on the Caspian Sea. Eto’o was given the biggest salary in world football for the privilege, around €21m a year. Anzhi, quite unbelievably, had turned into Qatari-esque province on the Russian mainland.

The new band of stars unsurprisingly needed an appropriate coach, someone equally renowned as having a reputation strong enough to keep control over Anzhi’s famous newcomers. This man was Guus Hiddink, a well-known manager in Russia and a widely adored for the great work he had done with the national team. Naturally, he became the highest-paid manager on the planet with his annual income of around €10m a year.

Anzhi looked set to rewrite their own history – and that of Dagestan – however due to the delicate political situation in their region, their training base was situated in Moscow. The team flew to Makhachkala to play home games and then returned to the capital where the players lived in security. They trained in a settlement named Kratovo, situated near Moscow, where FC Saturn used to conduct training sessions before the club was disbanded. With Saturn folding due to financial mismanagement, Anzhi leased their facilities until their own ones in Makhachkala could be improved.

Nevertheless, each time Anzhi played in Makhachkala the stands of their stadium were full of fiercely passionate fans. The atmosphere grew even fiercer when the reconstruction works ended and a modernised stadium, the Anzhi Arena, was opened. Russian and foreign stars attended the ceremony, while Jean-Claude van Damme was invited as a special guest of Kerimov.

With everything now in their hands, Anzhi dared to challenge the big Moscow clubs and Zenit, and finished the 2012/13 season in third, their best finish to date. Their midfield was subsequently strengthened with the signings of Lassana Diarra from Real Madrid and Willian from Shakhtar Donetsk. Anzhi reached the Russian Cup final but lost again – this time to CSKA Moscow – and made it to the Europa League playoffs where Newcastle ended their campaign in the second knockout round.

By the end of that season, Hiddink saw his contract with the club expire but, in contrast to Roberto Carlos, accepted a prolonged offer. Carlos, who by that time had served as Anzhi’s joint head coach for some time, headed to Turkey to manage Sivasspor. It was said that the Brazilian frequently argued with the team’s leader, Eto’o, over the Cameroonian’s role at the club. For Eto’o, a place in the starting line-up was not enough; seeing himself the team’s best player, he wanted to have more power in his hands and preside over the day-to-day running of the club, something Carlos fiercely opposed.

Given Eto’o’s celebrity status, he was often found on the front pages of newspapers in Dagestan and the back pages in the rest of Russia. Despite his status as a player bigger than the club, in Makhachkala fans usually recall the African striker with nothing but fondness. After all, he famously provided a secretary at the club with a brand new flat in downtown Makhachkala.

Summer 2013 was arguably the most eventful time for Anzhi under Suleyman Kerimov. The club signed two Russian internationals – Igor Denisov, who had notoriously left Zenit after a scandal following Hulk and Axel Witsel’s arrival in Saint Petersburg, and Alexander Kokorin from Dynamo Moscow, who was considered one of the most prodigious young forwards in Russia.

With a combined fee of €34m for the pair, the deal signified Anzhi’s move towards the domestic market – a step that was inevitable considering the existing limit on foreign players in the Russian championship. However, by the end of the summer, the two, along with Zhirkov, found themselves in Moscow, at Dynamo. Kokorin failed to make a single appearance for the club.

The reason behind one of the most bizarre transfers in the history of Russian football is that Kerimov all of a sudden decided to curtail his project. The press was told that the businessman now wanted to change his club’s development course, replacing expensive stars with some of the Republic’s homebred talents.

Anzhi radical move was unexpected and brutal – with almost all major stars sold in the space of a single season – that journalists and fans could only guess as to what forced Kerimov to reject his Napoleonic plans to create the mightiest and the starriest club in Russia.

Hypotheses varied: some said Kerimov was struggling with his health, which prevented him from running the club, while others assumed he was disappointed with the fact his team had not yet won the title despite his vast sums of investment. According to another theory, Kerimov was at odds with the region’s current head, and they had different views on how Anzhi should develop. Most believably, a decline in his personal wealth prompted change.

As a result, not only did the Russian stars bid farewell to Makhachkala but the club’s most pompously bought foreign players followed suit. Eto’o was reunited with José Mourinho at Chelsea after successful stint together at Inter, with Willian following soon after. Diarra decided to stay in Moscow – this time without the necessity to visit Dagestan every fortnight – and joined Lokomotiv.

By the start of the 2013 season, Hiddink had departed too. René Meulensteen, once Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United, replaced the Dutchman. However, Anzhi, no more a band of sophisticated masters, entered the championship under local manager Gadzhi Gadzhiyev, who returned to the club for his second spell after Meulensteen’s forgettable stint in Dagestan.

Anzhi’s problems were not confined to an abrupt change in the way it was managed. UEFA forbade them to play their Europa League home games in Makhachkala, declaring that the situation in Dagestan was too dangerous for the international fixtures to be held, so Anzhi had to play their opponents in Moscow.

With fans from the capital angered that a Caucasian team was playing in their stadiums, they met Anzhi and the club’s supporters with extreme hostility, often coming to Anzhi’s matches in support of the opposition. Although the Dagestani club progressed to the Europa League playoffs – where they were beaten by AZ Alkmaar – they failed to save their place in the Premier League and were relegated. In just three short years they had gone from one of the world’s biggest spending clubs to Russia’s second tier.

They were back in the Premier League after a season, however, this time as just an average team again with their bygone power now only savoured in sweet memories. Today, Suleyman Kerimov still owns Anzhi, though carefully avoiding interviews and keeping silent about any of his decisions as the club’s owner. The total sum of his expenditure at the club during its peak for three years amounted to €450m, and only he knows whether the venture was worth it.

For Anzhi supporters, starved of quality football, it was a fleeting moment in the sun. For the rest of the world, it remains one of the most bizarre few seasons in football history.

By Vladislav Ryabov

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