Anzhi, Eto'o rewriting the playbook

BY Jonathan Wilson • October 24, 2012

Makhachkala is a city of around 570,000 on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. It’s the capital of Dagestan, the southern-most republic in the Russian Federation. In recent years, it has seen significant fighting between Russian forces and largely Islamic separatists. The investigative journalist Gadzhimurat Kamalov was shot there in December 2011.

Makhachkala is used to conflict: it was originally a fortress founded in 1844, while British air squadrons launched bombing raids against Bolsheviks from there in 1918. Now, it’s a fairly typical southern Russian town, characterized by tower-blocks, lavish state buildings and a huge mosque.

It’s also the home of the best-paid player in world football.

Or rather, it’s the home of the club of the best-paid player in the world. Samuel Eto’o, the Cameroon forward signed by Anzhi Makhachkala for $36 million from Internazionale in the summer of 2011, does not live in Dagestan but in Moscow, a two-and-a-half hour flight to the north. None of the players live in town and the entire squad resides and trains in Moscow then flies in for home league matches.

If Thursday’s Europa League match between Anzhi and Liverpool (Thursday, 3 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer) were being played in Makhachkala, the home side would be travelling only slightly less than half as far as the away side coming from England. As it is, the 15,200-capacity Dinamo Stadium in Makhachkala doesn’t meet UEFA standards; to be precise, that’s 991.4 miles from the Dinamo Stadium, some commute for home fans.

Of all the artificial super-clubs springing up thanks to sugar-daddy investment, none feels quite so artificial as Anzhi. It may be that none ends up being quite so super.

The club was founded in 1991 Alexander Markarov, who had played at center-forward for Dinamo Makhachkala, a team sponsored by the local secret police who had played in the Soviet second flight between 1971 and 1990; and local entrepreneur Magomed-Sultan Magomedov, the owner of Dagneftprodukt, the largest fuel-processing company in the region.  They entered the Dagestan league and, winning 16 and drawing four of 20 games, Anzhi was champion in its first season.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the restructuring of the leagues, Anzhi was entered in the Russian Second Division (the third flight) in 1992. Markarov, having retired nine years earlier, returned to become the division’s top scorer with 11 goals as Anzhi finished fifth. It went on to be champion the following season but more restructuring of the league denied it promotion and it only took its place in the First Division in 1996, when it was coached by Eduard Malofeev, the managerial great who had taken Dinamo Minsk to the Soviet title in 1982 with his brand of “sincere” – that is, open and attacking – football.

Promotion to the Premier League came in 1999, and only a penalty converted five minutes into injury-time by Torpedo against Anzhi on the final day of the season denied it third place. The next year, Anzhi was defeated in the Cup final, but if there was a sense of the club establishing itself, it was illusory: it was relegated in 2002.

Anzhi spent seven years outside the top flight before being promoted again. It finished eleventh in that first season and then, in January 2011, came the deal that took Anzhi to a new level, as it was taken over by Suleyman Kerimov, the 146th richest man in the world according to the most recent Forbes list, with a fortune of $6.5 billion. His investment at the club now stands at somewhere around $250 million.

The question, as ever, is why.

Kerimov speaks of local pride, and he was born in Derbent in Dagestan, and studied accounting and economics at Dagestan State University. But with oligarchs it’s hard not to start joining the dots.

It’s no secret that Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, encourages oligarchs to invest in sporting ventures. It may be that Kerimov is a long-standing fan of Anzhi, but it’s also the case that his investment in a provincial club, particularly one in such a troubled region, fits exactly in Putin’s more general policy of decentralization.

It’s surely no coincidence that after years of Moscow domination, not one of the last five Russian champions have been from the capital. If Anzhi does well, the theory runs that it helps to “normalize” the situation in the region, distracting people from the separatist movement and promoting Dagestan for something other than the conflict.

Moscow provides millions of dollars a year in aid to the Caucasian region. Given that Kerimov didn’t buy Anzhi but was gifted it by the president of Dagestan in exchange for a promise of £120 million of investment in infrastructure, including a new 40,000-capacity stadium, there has been a backlash among fans in Moscow who wonder why their taxes indirectly subsidize Eto’o’s wages of $15 million a year plus bonuses.

There may be concerns off the pitch, but on it Anzhi is doing well. After an initial glut of exotic Brazilian signings, including a superannuated Roberto Carlos, recruitment has settled down. In have come the former Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov, defender Christopher Samba from Blackburn and the holding midfielder Lassana Diarra from Real Madrid. Guus Hiddink has been appointed as coach and, after a fifth-place finish last season, Anzhi is top of the Russian table after 12 games, having lost just once.

Excellent counter-attacking displays in the away legs saw it overcome Honved 5-0 on aggregate and AZ Alkmaar 6-0 on aggregate in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League and it began the group stage with a 1-1 draw away to Udinese and a 2-0 win over Young Boys Berne.

Anzhi’s eyes, of course, are ultimately on the Champions League, but success in the Europa League is a step towards that and to greater recognition.