In a month where the Court of Arbitration for Sport threw out Manchester City’s two-year ban from UEFA competition, essentially validating their affluent approach to the transfer market and squad building, a philosophical question surrounds the sport once more. What do we want competitive football to look like moving forward? Rumours of a breakaway league for Europe’s footballing aristocracy are rife amongst red top back pages – although you could argue we already have one and its name is the knockout rounds of the Champions League – while smaller clubs from Europe’s smaller cities can have little hope of ever challenging for the top prizes in the game. That is, without the help of a sugar daddy willing to pump the club full of cash and underwrite any losses. So, on that note, we remember the brief period in the early 2010s when Anzhi Makhachkala dared to dream.
The Republic of Dagestan, a southwestern, mostly Muslim and mountainous region of Russia is most notable in recent years as the birthplace of UFC juggernaut and destroyer of Connor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov. However, for a swift stretch at the turn of the last decade, Dagestan and its most populous city of Makhachkala played host to a select few of football’s elite. Their fleeting moment in the spotlight as an oil magnate’s plaything put the region’s biggest club side on the map as players signed on from Inter, Chelsea and Corinthians to compete for domestic silverware, to challenge in European competition, and pick up immensely inflated wage packets.
A new era dawned with the new millennium – Y2K brought with it takeovers of routinely mediocre football clubs by oil-rich petrostates and exploitative billionaires looking for a pastime with which to whittle away a few million dollars a year. Roman Abramovic allegedly purchased Chelsea off the back of a final-day victory over Liverpool in 2003 – the winner of the game entering the following season’s Champions League and with that gifted sacks full of petrodollars. Manchester City followed soon after as Sheikh Mansour and his Abu Dhabi United Group purchased the club from the previous proprietor and frivolous spender, Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2008. Three years later, perennial underachievers, Paris Saint-Germain were purchased by the state of Qatar under the guise of their QSI Group. Monaco and Malaga have also benefited from this bountiful phenomenon to varying degrees of success. For Anzhi Makhachkala, a man described as “humble” and “one of the most successful businessmen in the region”, Suleyman Kerimov, took full control of the club’s financial accounts with the aim of creating a trophy-laden future littered with prosperity.
After failed attempts to acquire clubs in Italy – Bari and Roma – followed by a lack of success with Torpedo Moscow, Suleyman settled for the club of his roots; the fans of Anzhi could only dream of what riches lay ahead. Dagestani authorities handed over 100 per cent of the club’s shares to Kerimov on the condition that he pledged to help further the progress of football in the region.
A roadmap was laid out in order to change the trajectory of the club on the shore of the Caspian Sea. A quintessential yo-yo side in Russian football, Anzhi were most notable for their appearances in the second flight, but Kermov’s millions would be the ammunition the side needed to catapult them from second-tier also-rans to the upper echelons of the Russian Premier League and, eventually, Europe’s high stakes table.
At the moment of Kerimov’s takeover, Anzhi could boast to be among the world’s richest football clubs – the stage was set from them to compete for prime talent alongside the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Manchester United. While they could only offer their playing staff a modest life in a city of 500,000 people, Anzhi would more than compensate with a hefty wage.
First through the door was an ageing Roberto Carlos, arriving at the ripe old age of 37 from sunny São Paulo. The World Cup winner would immediately become the highest-paid footballer Russia had ever seen, and while this in itself was a landmark signing for the club, the best was yet to come.
Over the next 18 months, Mbark Boussoufa – a Moroccan international – arrived from Anderlecht, Yuri Zhirkov flew in from Chelsea, PSV’s Balázs Dzsudzsák signed a four-year deal in the summer of 2011, Chris Samba also found himself tempted by the Anzhi project, but the pinnacle of the Anzhi spending spree was convincing a 31-year-old Samuel Eto’o to join the ranks just twelve months on from winning the treble at Inter – the €21million-a-year salary will undoubtedly have done much of the leg work. Until this point, no Russian club had that kind of financial pulling power. This Qatari-Esque spending had within months managed to assemble a team of bonafide stars, so it was only fitting that a manager of some repute would be needed at the helm to steer the side towards domestic victory. Step forward Guus Hiddink – immediately becoming the highest-paid coach in the league to the tune of €10million a year.
With a robust and steady squad seemingly in place and an experienced tactician at the helm in Hiddink, Anzhi set about challenging Zenit and the Moscow clubs for the European places. They finished the 2011-12 season in a respectable 8th, before making further strides the year after, finishing third in 2012-13 – just one place shy of a Champions League spot but with an automatic place in the Europa League group stages for their efforts. In their inaugural Europa League campaign, the Dagestani outfit navigated a tough group that included Liverpool and Young Boys, squeaking through goal difference, before their run was ended in the last 16 at the hands of Newcastle and a 93rd-minute Papiss Cissé winner.
Impressive early-season form in the autumn of 2012 brought about a string of remarkable victories. Anzhi clocked up seven in a row, including back to back wins over Spartak and Dynamo Moscow, leaving them top of the pile after 12 rounds of games. They stuttered slightly in November but entered the winter break in a respectable second. It would be their form in the spring that would see them drop out of the Champions League spots, and despite recording 1-1 draws both home and away against Zenit, Anzhi struggled in the closing stages, dropping 11 points in their final six games.
For Kerimov, buying the club and shelling out millions for the players was the easy part – outside influences meant that not everything at Anzhi was plain sailing, the journey to the top is never a straight line. Due to ongoing conflict in the region of Dagestan, Anzhi were forced to abandon their city to live and train in Moscow, returning to the Anzhi Arena only for home games. Although they were welcomed home with ferocious support from locals, the travel took its toll on the squad.
The summer of 2013 saw further spending in the early stages before a cataclysmic u-turn in mid-August. Anzhi focussed their attentions on the domestic market, an inevitable move considering the cap on foreign players in the Russian Premier League, picking up Igor Denisov and mercurial talent Alexandr Kokorin for a combined €34million in July, before Kerimov’s change of heart saw both players ushered out of the exit door in abrupt fashion, Kokorin without a single appearance to his name. There is widespread speculation as to why Suleyman Kerimov opted to sell off his prized assets in favour of cheaper, regional talent. Rumours of ill-health were quickly quelled, but gossip surrounding struggles among the leadership within the camp, disagreements with political figures over how the club should be run, and the lack of immediate silverware despite significant financial investment filled the back pages. Nevertheless, Samuel Eto’o left to link back up with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Lassana Diarra moved to the capital to sign for Lokomotiv, while Kokorin was packaged with Yuri Zhirkov and Igor Denisov and sold off to Dinamo Moscow. Within 18 months, the experiment was over and Anzhi would find themselves back in the doldrums of the second tier, without a star player in their ranks. Anzhi’s fleeting moment in the limelight is in itself a mirror-image of some of their signings fleeting moments at the club. Just as quickly as you noticed their presence they were gone again.
Suleyman Kerimov still owns the club today but in a much more reclusive manor. Kerimov sheepishly avoids interviews and is far more fiscally responsible with his investment in the club. His total expenditure during the club’s three-year explosion into the European game totalled around the €450million mark and you’d be hard-pressed to get a solid quote from him as to whether he feels he got his money’s worth.
For the fans of the Caucasian club, it was a brief moment of excitement during a period of otherwise obscurity. While for the rest of the world, it’s a damning indictment of the financial restrictions of the modern game. There isn’t enough private or public interest in Russian football to grow smaller clubs organically, the only way a club the size of Anzhi was ever going to compete was if a man like Kerimov was willing to pump in millions of his own money and underwrite any debts accrued. While FFP has its flaws and drawbacks, it is essentially designed to stop clubs living beyond their means and going to the wall after a few years of ambitious spending. Unfortunately, FFP rules restrict and strangle smaller clubs from attempting to compete on the same stage as larger sides with already well-established revenue streams.
So, as we edge ever closer to the Champions League mini-tournament, and with a Manchester City vs Paris Saint-Germain final a very real possibility – colossal petrostate vs colossal petrostate – we would do well to remember those who flew too close to the sun. Those clubs, who rightly or wrongly, with the help of a willing financier, aimed high and were brought down to earth with an almighty thud.