When Suleyman Kerimov took over Anzhi in January 2011, there was little immediate interest from the wider footballing world. When Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos made his way to the Makhachkala club just a month later, the deal made the sports pages in a number of nations, but largely for the same reasons – Carlos was long past his best, looking for one last pay-day, and abuse received at Corinthians was the perfect excuse for him to move to Russia for comfortable semi-retirement.
Kerimov’s huge investment
Over the next few months, the signings trickled in – Joao Carlos, recently signed by Spartak Moscow, joined from Belgian side Genk, while midfield Jucilei was reunited with his old Corinthians team mate. Eyebrows were raised when Diego Tardelli and Mbark Boussoufa chose to try and unlock their undoubted potential in Dagestan, but for the first few months of Kerimov’s tenure there were few signs of the headline-grabbing spending that was to come.
In the summer, things began to change. The hand of the owners, rather than local manager Gadzhi Gadzhiev, began to be seen in the transfer dealings as first highly-sought after winger Balazs Dzsudzsak turned down a host of other clubs to sign for Anzhi, and then Chelsea’s Yuri Zhirkov made himself public enemy number one in Russia by turning down a ‘proper’ side like Spartak Moscow to join the Caucasian upstarts. Just shy of three weeks later, Kerimov made the statement he had been waiting for. In his prime, just a year after completing a treble with Inter Milan and two after firing Barcelona to Champions League success, Cameroon international and one of the world’s most feared strikers, Samuel Eto’o, joined the side. International media couldn’t comprehend the move, especially given Eto’o's previous issues with racism, but a rumoured salary worth around €20m per year answered their doubts.
In Russia, press had a field day with his name – Это’о looking remarkably similar to Это – ‘this’ or ‘this is’ – and began to speculate on how many goals one of the world’s greatest finishers would net against the likes of Amkar Perm. Yet as the Cameroonian set about firing Anzhi up the table, the subsequent transfer window was a little quieter from Kerimov.
The managerial position became of greater interest, as first Gadzhi Gadzhiev, then Yuri Krasnozhan were dismissed before Guus Hiddink, the man wanted from day one, finally arrived in the dugout. His capture of Christopher Samba made waves in England, but two other purchases – those of Alania Vladikavkaz captain Georgi Gabulov and Ural Ekaterinburg’s promising midfielder Oleg Shatov – began to give life to the promises which Kerimov had made when initially taking over the club. As when any wealthy backer adopts a club, there were the usual promises. The youth would be developed, Anzhi would integrate itself into the heart of the community, and give the region a focal point around which to rally. German Chistyakov, chief executive, was recorded saying: “The football team is just a part of a bigger project. There will be new stadia, new infrastructure for the club, a new training ground, an academy for the kids. It will be a social lift for Dagestan. All these projects will change the lives of people in this region.”
That the arrivals in following windows included the likes of Lassana Diarra and Shakhtar Donetsk star Willian, they sound like empty promises. However, unlike the Middle Eastern royalty responsible for success at Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain, taking control of a club as a personal vanity project and creating a world brand, Kerimov’s local beginnings place him in a different category of super-rich owner.
Why did Kerimov take on the project in the first place?
A quiet man who rarely gives interviews after a car crash left him badly burnt in 2006, his methods of showing his wealth – Kerimov owns one of the world’s largest yachts – have been scaled back in recent years. A Dagestani native with a desire to give back to the people of his homeland, his designs for an Anzhi academy to benefit the entire region were genuine, if a little delayed – top-class international coaches now train youngsters in the club’s facilities. Furthermore, his alturistic touch has been felt outside of Makhachkala. With fellow Dagestani side Dagdizel Kaspiysk falling into oblivion, they were quickly brought into the Anzhi family as a Second Division feeder club. Anzhi’s first option on Dagdizel players seems irrelevant now, but by moving the side to Derbent – Dagestan’s historic second city, Kermov’s hometown, and much further from Makhachkala than Kaspiysk – Kerimov has in effect spread his own club’s net across more of the region, maximising the number to benefit from Anzhi’s new-found wealth.
There are also plans afoot to relocate the club, although not in an MK Dons, franchise-style affair. Due to the regular threat of insurgency in ethno-religiously troubled Dagestan, players famously live and train on the outskirts of Moscow, flying in only for home games. under Kerimov’s grand plan, a new training base is being established within Dagestan, designed to reconnect the team with its fans and place a bridge between the fanatical Wild Division and their adopted multi-millionaire, international stars. Before the training base is completed, Anzhi may be somewhat lacking in the latter department.
Russian orientated transfer strategy- a move away from big spending
This summer, just weeks after seemingly pursuing a more Russian-orientated transfer policy with the capture of €20m Aleksandr Kokorin and €15m national team captain Igor Denisov, it was announced that Anzhi’s playing budget would be slashed from second in the league, competing with Zenit, to around £30-50m per year, placing them roughly midtable in the Russian Premier expenditure league. The speculated reasons were many, each of them equally viable whilst most likely acting as part of much wider logic. The first conclusion drawn was to link the cuts to Kerimov’s investment dealing, his UralKali potash cartel breaking up and wiping almost half a billion dollars off its share price due to problems in Belarus. What was less widely reported what that the share value has largely recovered, and with a personal fortune estimated at $7.1 billion, Anzhi’s backer is in a position where he can afford to take an occasional financial hit.
Secondly, attention was drawn to the owner’s health problems, the specifics of which are unknown but which were believed to be linked to stress caused by worrying about his team. At 47 years of age, Kerimov is not thought to have any serious medical conditions, but with Anzhi’s expectations rising with every star signing and European victory, it is easy to sympathise with a man wanting to step back from a project which seemed to be spiralling out of control. Perhaps linked to the above was a third option, one which suggested Kerimov was simply fed up with the lack of unity and apparent egomania sweeping the Anzhi changing room. Denisov, who left boyhood club Zenit after a row over wages paid to international stars such as Hulk, reported clashed with club captain Eto’o over similar issues, while Guus Hiddink’s resignation early in the season left vastly experienced coach but rookie manager Rene Meulensteen unable to control the star-studded squad.
Training ground bust-ups involving Eto’o, Diarra, Denisov and Uzbek midfielder Odil Akhmedov were reported, and it was speculated that Denisov’s contract would be cancelled with weeks of his arrival. Cynics have also pointed to the use of the club as something of a Kremlin PR exercise that is yet to achieve it’s purpose – to highlight stability in the area in the same way that neighbours Terek represent Chechnya. the team’s absence from the region, the relative lack of success in Europe – by political standards, as a run to the Europa League knockouts was impressive enough from a footballing viewpoint – and rumours of in-fighting brought a dark side to the ‘territory of peace’ slogan bandied about by the club’s officials. However, irrespective of government approval, image problems alone seem unlikely to have had such a huge impact on proceedings.
Finally, and one which Anzhi fans and football romantics the world over want to believe, is that Kerimov is simply refocusing his investment into the channels he originally planned. A policy of buying big names to bring instant success has failed, despite an appearance in Russia’s domestic cup final last year, and so the club is now embarking on a fresh start, putting more resources and full faith in the youth development programme and academy system hailed as the future of the club. Despite director Konstantin Remchukov’s protestations against a club-wide fire sale and rumours of the entire first team being sold, the big names have left in their droves. Eto’o currently remains despite interest from Chelsea and former club Inter, but he is about the only international player left with the club.
Dinamo Moscow, newly bankrolled by billionaire Boris Rotenberg, have made the most of the situation in snapped up Zhirkov, Denisov and the returning Kokorin, Zenit have taken Shatov and ex-Kuban while Joao Carlos heads to Spartak as defensive cover and the pair of Diarra and playmaker Boussoufa flee to Lokomotiv. Willian looks to be a few formalities away from joining Tottenham in their bid for Champions League football, and even goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov, a relative local, looks to be heading for the exit. A makeshift side took the field in their recent league match in St Petersburg, and a haphazard outfit of returning loanees and ill-prepared reserves had a defensive aberration in a 3-0 defeat. Remchukov also claimed that Anzhi would be able to remain competitive despite the drastic changes – the test will come in games against sides like Kuban and Krylya Sovetov rather than the Zenits and CSKAs of the Russian game.
The new players, many with little to no RPL experience, have been thrown in at the deep end, and some have even begun to think of Anzhi as relegation candidates. Just five games into the season is too early to speculate as to final positions, but what is clear is that Anzhi’s future must also become their present. Unfamiliar names – those of Sharif Mukhammad, Islamnur Abdulavov and Serder Serderov – are the ones who hold the first team places for the time being, while Dagestan waits for the first stars to roll off the new production line.
What could the future spell for Anzhi?
The region itself is bustling with footballing potential, its poverty-stricken natives perfect for the kind of rags-to-riches story that so often catapults Brazilian stars to fame. No other team in the area has really attempted to tap into its promise, and if Anzhi can extend their influence beyond Makhachkala and Derbent, while maintaining the same high level of coaching across its schools and academies, it is not unfeasible to think of a Russian national side with Dagestani representation in the future.
With the wise old head of Gadzhiev back at the club for his fifth spell in charge and a young side free from the burden of expectation, in many ways Anzhi can view the rest of this season as a write-off. Concentrate on staying in the top flight and blooding the right youngsters, before regrouping for the next campaign and going again. Any youth-driven plan is going to take time to bear fruit, and if Kerimov is happy to support the academies while letting the first team be, Anzhi’s level of Premier League success is all relative. If Dagestan is indeed a hotbed of footballing talent, Anzhi will be the benefactors.
However, the new project seems to be be genuinely geared towards more than trophies and headlines. By drawing Anzhi nearing to its fanbase and investing in the region rather than big names, they have started down a path which many a football fan wishes their own somewhat detached side would follow. Whether it is a sustainable one to pursue in combination with ambitions of silverware and survival remains to be seem, but for now at least it would appear that Anzhi are not yet the burning pile of wreckage that some commentators would have us believe.
The term ‘in transition’ may never have been more appropriate for a football club, results may take a dramatic turn for the worse, but the impact of Kerimov’s new policies may be the biggest positive to come out of Makhachkala yet – for the time being, the club are doing far more than merely surviving. A revolution in big-money owenership? Time will tell. A refreshing change in the cash-driven world of Russian football? Most certainly.