Just who are Anzhi Makhachkala The extraordinary story of the billionaire Russians hoping to topple Liverpool
16:03 GMT, 24 October 2012
The Russian Republic of Dagestan, with its mountainous terrain, has been a place of sanctuary for people of all ethnicities and backgrounds over the centuries. And this remains as true today as ever.
But while it was once impoverished nomads and refugees who settled there, it is now more likely to be multi-millionaire young men playing football.
The region’s football side, Anzhi Makhachkala, are in the throes of a new Russian Revolution, one which their oligarch owners hope will deliver them to the summit of not only the national, but the European, game.
Big names: Guus Hiddink and Roberto Carlos have been enticed to Anzhi as manager and technical director respectively
Destination Dagestan: Samuel Eto'o signed for Anzhi from Inter Milan and reportedly earns 350,000 a week at the Russian club
In the next two weeks, Liverpool will find out first-hand how far they’ve come. This is a Europa League double-header with much more than first meets the eye.
The story of Anzhi is one of eye-watering quantities of money being thrown at a club who three years ago languished in the second division, and of enticing star quality names like Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos and Yuri Zhirkov to come and play in one of the most volatile and hostile regions on earth.
Dagestan is a place where mafia gangs control billion-dollar industries like oil, gold and potash (not to mention caviar from the Caspian Sea), where kidnapping, bombings, violence, threats and intimidation are commonplace, and where everyone owns a gun.
Yet amidst the killings, the lawlessness and a separatist struggle with Moscow, local billionaire Suleyman Kerimov is trying to build an all-conquering team from absolutely nothing.
Money man: Oligarch Suleyman Kerimov is bankrolling Anzhi's bid to conquer Russia and Europe
Liverpool will not see any of Dagestan’s turmoil as the away group stage tie, on November 8, will be played at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow, 1600km to the north, due to UEFA’s enduring ban on European games being played in Makhachkala.
It is one of the many curiosities of the Anzhi story that this will actually be a ‘local’ match for the players and their well-regarded coach Guus Hiddink. They live and train just outside of Moscow, flying first-class to all their domestic home matches at the rickety, Soviet-era Dynamo Stadium.
The squad cover nearly 50,000 miles a season just to fulfil their home fixtures.
It ensures a plush, pampered and most importantly safe lifestyle for players like Eto’o, who at 30 might be accused at playing at a standard beneath him until you realise his wage packet is reportedly 350,000 a week.
Eto’o was recently filmed by a group of French documentary makers inspecting his new Moscow penthouse, complete with private lift, sauna, swimming pool and 360 degree panoramic views of the historic capital.
Pointing the way forward: Eto'o has nine goals in 13 outings so far this season
Roberto Carlos, 39, winner of the World Cup in 2002, finished his playing days with Anzhi and is now their sporting director. His last birthday present was a 1.8m Bugatti Veyron sports car, personally procured by Kerimov’s small change.
Also in the squad is Christopher Samba, signed for 12.3m as Blackburn hurtled towards relegation from the Premier League last season. He earns 100,000 a week but has been the victim of racist abuse in the Russian League.
He told BBC Sport this week: ‘This is a very ambitious club and we have attracted a lot of players. This is not just about money – this is a proper sports project.
‘People don’t come here just to chill and win a pay cheque. We’re putting in a shift on the pitch and at the moment it’s working.’
Solid as a rock: Christopher Samba joined Anzhi from Blackburn for 12.3m last season
Zhirkov, who spent two years at Chelsea, joined for 13.2m in August 2011, and another former Stamford Bridge face, Lassana Diarra, moved from Real Madrid this year.
They’re guided by Hiddink, another Chelsea connection of course, who was picked ahead of Fabio Capello for the job in February. His pay cheque is worth 8.3m a year.
/10/24/article-2222466-15A9B16B000005DC-694_634x458.jpg” width=”634″ height=”458″ alt=”Chelsea connection: Yuri Zhirkov has linked up with former boss Hiddink at Anzhi” class=”blkBorder” />
Chelsea connection: Yuri Zhirkov has linked up with former boss Hiddink at Anzhi
They’re also getting more and more ambitious in their recruitment. There were sensational reports in the summer of Anzhi trying to woo Robin Van Persie with a 45m transfer fee and 300,000-a-week. Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic is also reportedly on their shopping list for January.
Just 18 months ago, this would have been unthinkable when Kerimov, a 46-year-old billionaire who made his fortune from investments in the region’s lucrative gold, silver and potash mines, took control.
The region’s President, Magomedsalam Magomedov, gave him 100 per cent control of Anzhi in exchange for a truck load of cash not only to spend on the squad and a new 40,000-seater stadium, but the region as a whole.
Plenty to cheer: The Anzhi fans will soon have a 40,000 stadium in which to watch their side
Kerimov, who is reportedly worth $8bn, has so far pledged $200m for infrastructure projects which will start to regenerate a turbulent region.
In the nineties, Chechen separatists led armed operations in Dagestan on a number of occasions, taking hostages in hospitals in Dagestani towns and killing scores of people.
In 1999, an Islamic body called on Muslims in Dagestan and neighbouring Chechnya to take up arms against the Russian military. There were two weeks of bloody clashes and Russia has maintained its presence there ever since.
Periodically, insurgents take on the military presence. Ten died in Makhachkala in a 2005 bombing and a policeman was killed and 60 wounded when a bomb went off outside Anzhi’s stadium in September 2010.
Bright future: Hiddink and Carlos are determined to take points from Liverpool to maintain their good start to the season
So a history of friction between Moscow and this southern province has been added to by Anzhi’s ascent. When they used the Lokomotiv Stadium for their Europa League qualifier with AZ Alkmaar in August, supporters of the Moscow clubs united to hurl nationalist abuse at the Anzhi players.
Zhirkov was also signalled out for abuse by Russian fans when he played for the national side in the same stadium. The locals believe he’s wasting his time down in Dagestan.
‘We’re unpopular because people can’t understand how a club that won the second division [three years ago] are now title contenders,’ adds Samba.
But for Samba and his teammates, unpopularity is a small price to pay for being part of the Revolution.