Russia takes big picture view of Anzhi
In the last two decades, Russia has witnessed the dismantling of its Soviet-era political system, a transition (at least nominally) to democracy and a market economy, a major credit default, the growth of a mega-rich business and political class and two domestic wars. Turbulence is something the current generation of Russians - much like their forebears who underwent revolution, industrialization, war, de-Stalinization and much more - have had to get used to.
Even against this backdrop, the astronomical rise of Russia's most nouveau of riches, Anzhi Makhachkala, from regional also-ran to potential European powerhouse has proved a rather disorientating experience. You would have got long odds just over a year ago that, at this stage of the Russian Premier League season, Anzhi would be challenging for a European spot, never mind that their top scorer would be Samuel Eto'o and their head coach would be Guus Hiddink. This is a team whose record goalscorer is little-known Azerbaijan international Ibrahim Hasanbekov, and whose major signing in the summer of 2010 was Czech striker Jan Holenda. Amidst the sea change, many in Russia are still pinching themselves.
Inevitably, transfer policies are the first to be hastily redrawn. In the 14 months since he took on ownership of the club, Suleyman Kerimov has spent more than $150 million on transfers alone. That has had its own knock-on effect on the rest of Russia's top sides. In the summer of 2011, Spartak Moscow spent weeks courting Standard Liege's Morocco midfielder Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez, only for Anzhi to snatch him from under their noses on deadline day. "We already had a contract signed with Carcela-Gonzalez," Spartak's sporting director Dimitry Popov complained. "But then Anzhi came in." Yury Zhirkov was another player who opted to join Anzhi, despite offers from at least two other Russian Premier League teams.
Big-spending Anzhi have also been shrewd in their transfer dealings. They cleverly signed goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov from Dinamo Moscow last August, only to immediately loan him to CSKA Moscow, who had lost first-choice Igor Akinfeev to long-term injury - in return for a fee. Even more impressively, having signed Hungarian winger Balazs Dzsudzsak from PSV Eindhoven last summer for $19.3million, the club opted to take a profit on him just six months later, eventually selling him to Dinamo Moscow for $26.2million. Thanks to Anzhi, Russia's established clubs are losing out on players, or having to stump up more to sign them.
Then there are the complications of qualifying for Europe in this new, more competitive climate. Russia's UEFA coefficient means only the country's top two qualify for the Champions League, with a further three making the Europa League through league position (another place is available for the Russian Cup winners). Combine that with Anzhi's clearly-stated aspiration for a seat at Europe's top table - "we want to write our names in the history of European football," defender Roberto Carlos has said - and it's clear there isn't enough room for everyone.
Zenit, CSKA, Spartak, Lokomotiv, Dinamo and Rubin Kazan all expect European qualification year-on-year. Although it may be hypocritical of many of these clubs to grumble at an arriviste like Anzhi crashing the party - backed by Gazprom, Zenit only became perennial contenders in European competition in the mid-2000s, and Tatar oil and gas beneficiaries Rubin even later than that - it's understandably troubling for them to contemplate non-qualification.
And it isn't just the big clubs who have been adversely affected, either. In the days before Kerimov, when Anzhi's aims were more modest, the club is alleged to have engaged in shady practices to garner extra points. A long-established practice between many Russian clubs anxious to avoid relegation is the 'trade', whereby two sides agree to split points evenly in the fixtures between them. So, should a club beat another at home, they might roll over in the away game to return the favor, thus accumulating a few guaranteed points over a season.
Anzhi drew a line under such practices a year ago. "We will not play any 'backdoor games'," the club's CEO German Chistyakov euphemistically stated. "We will not engage in any other battle beside the one on the field." Those teams who may once have counted on Anzhi for a few freebies each season were left sorely disappointed.
But in fact many of Russian soccer's big hitters actually welcome Anzhi's rise. As the above example demonstrates, Anzhi's commitment to playing fairly ought to aid the process of cleaning up Russian football, which remains the subject of whispers concerning match-fixing. That ought to benefit everyone, from fans who can be more confident that they are witnessing a fair contest, to football administrators who can sell more tickets and market matches for television more easily - many Russian fans still refuse to watch their domestic league as they believe it is hopelessly corrupt.
Indeed, the commercial impact of a strong Anzhi side has been welcomed wholeheartedly by the club's rivals. "The arrival in Russia of players of the class of Eto'o seriously raises the commercial potential of the Premier League," Zenit president Aleksandr Dyukov told the club's official website last year. "What Anzhi's management is doing works to the benefit of our game."
Likewise Lokomotiv president Olga Smorodskaya, who stands to lose most if Anzhi qualify for Europe this season (with her side only on the fringes of the Europa League spots), similarly sees the benefit of Kerimov's investment. "It's good that real football legends are coming to Russia," she told Komsomolskaya Pravda. "I'm sure that the club's management have thought long and hard about their strategy."
The proof is in the numbers. Anzhi's 15,000-seater Dinamo Stadium has been sold out pretty much since Kerimov arrived on the scene. When they travel away they also attract big crowds - the biggest crowds of the season at fellow Russian Premier League sides Kuban and Terek were for the visit of Anzhi, both attendances in excess of 30,000. As of last autumn crowds for Anzhi's away matches had grown 70 percent year-on-year. It seems everyone's a winner.
The only fly in the ointment has been a sharp rise in unsavory - read "racist" - incidents around games involving Anzhi. Two separate attacks on Roberto Carlos in which bananas were thrown at the former Brazil defender provoked widespread international condemnation. Incidentally, almost a year after one of those attacks at the home stadium of Krylya Sovetov, the perpetrator gave himself up this week. The other, who waved a banana in the defender's face at Zenit's Petrovsky Stadium, has yet to be found.
Meanwhile, fans of some of the established clubs have stepped up a PR campaign against Anzhi which can only really be read as xenophobic. Anzhi's support base is predominantly Muslim and draws from the various North Caucasian ethnic groups whose relations with the white, Orthodox Christian population of European Russia have been decidedly tense for generations. Supporters of CSKA, many of whom lean towards Russian nationalist politics, have boycotted matches involving clubs from the North Caucasus, including Anzhi, for the best part of a year and have called upon others to do the same. Earlier this month, Dinamo fans attacked those of Anzhi travelling on a train after the sides met in Moscow, with witnesses reporting the assailants chanting "Onward Russians" as they did so.
But even in this respect, a successful Anzhi might augur well for the future. The decision to hire Guus Hiddink as head coach, for example, should silence some of those dissenting voices. After all, Hiddink is a national hero in Russia, having guided the national side to third place at Euro 2008. Surely, even the most hardened will now have pause for thought before abusing or boycotting the club. And if Anzhi can eventually shine when representing Russia on the European stage, it might further help to soften attitudes to North Caucasians.
As predictions go, that's as ambitious as any - but Anzhi are an ambitious club. Asked by Radio Marca last week about whether the club would be interested in adding Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to their ranks, Roberto Carlos responded: "Of course, we'll try to sign both of them when their current contracts are up." After the strides they have made in the last 14 months, who would bet against them pulling off that sort of coup? If they did, you feel even their rivals in the Russian Premier League wouldn't begrudge them it.
James Appell covers Eastern European and Russian soccer for various outlets including FOX Soccer, ITV, and The Football Ramble. You can follow him on Twitter at @jamesappell.