The Truth About Anzhi - Europe's Newest Billionaires
A year ago the average European football fan probably wouldn't have been able to locate Dagestan on a map, but that all changed in January 2011. FC Anzhi, the professional football team from Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, are minnows compared with teams in Moscow. One of the infants of European club football, Anzhi only came into existence in 1991. Despite such a short existence Anzhi were thrust into the football spotlight early last year when an ambitious billionaire took over at the club.
Suleyman Kerimov bought Anzhi Makhachkala in January 2011. Earning his vast fortune investing in several oil companies in the 1990s, Kerimov is currently 118th on the Forbes Rich List. A philanthropist and lover of sports, Kerimov is rumoured have had the idea to buy a football team after a near-death experience. After he totalled his Ferrari during a holiday in France in 2006, Kerimov is said to have had an epiphany. Kerimov's takeover saw Anzhi given a vast transfer kitty to buy players that would try to see them challenging for honours. Highly rated young Moroccan Mbark Boussoufa was snapped up from Anderlecht as well as some home-grown talent from across the Russian Premier League – to comply with Russia's cap on foreign players – but the headline signing would be former Brazil captain Roberto Carlos. He had been out of the spotlight since leaving Real Madrid in 2006, with spells in Turkey and his native Brazil, but heads turned when Anzhi paid 10 million euros for Carlos in February. The signings would only get bigger and better come the summer though, when, despite rumored interest from England and Germany, Hungarian winger Balazs Dzsudzsak opted for the Russian Ruble and made the switch from PSV Eindhoven for 14 million euros. Anzhi also secured the services of Yuri Zhirkov from Chelsea and rumors that Anzhi were interested in Inter Milan forward Samuel Eto'o persisted in the last few weeks of the transfer window. In a shocking development Anzhi finally got their man, paying Inter 28 million euros for Eto'o who got a cool 20.5 million euros a year, making him the world's highest paid footballer. The club, however, did not appoint a ‘high-profile' name in the dug-out, keeping native Dagestani coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev in charge.
Of course, billionaires acquiring football teams is nothing new. Chelsea, Manchester City, Malaga, Vitesse Arnhem and PSG have all had big cash injections in recent times courtesy of their wealthy owners and have reaped the rewards, but there's something different about Anzhi. To say that Dagestan isn't the most popular holiday destination would be putting it lightly and not because of the weather. Located in the North Caucasus region of Russia, Dagestan has been in crisis for many years. Tension between many different ethnic groups and constant terrorist attacks by extreme Islamist insurgents has transformed Dagestan into a war zone. Kerimov, a native of Dagestan himself, has pledged to invest up $200 million dollars into the infrastructure of Anzhi including training facilities and a new 40,000 seat stadium. Kerimov's hope is to distract people from the constant threat of terrorism with football and give hope to a new generation. Naive perhaps but admirable certainly. Whether it will have an effect on the area time will only tell but Anzhi Makhachkala have certainly benefitted from Kerimov's vision. Anzhi finished in the top 8 in the first half of the season and will look to qualify for Europe in the play-offs (NB: The Russian Premier league has been extended this year in order to change from a March-November season to the August-May type employed by other European leagues. European qualification and relegation places will be decided by a play-off system with positions 1-8 determining Champions League and Europa League places.) Following a dip in form in the last few months of the year, Anzhi parted ways with Gadzhiev. Their form did pick up in the last few games though and they finished in the top 8 of the league, which, leaving aside all the money they've invested, is still quite an achievement and Anzhi will hope for at least a Europa League spot come the Autumn.
The future looks bright for Anzhi Makhachkala both on and off the pitch. As ambitious as Kerimov's philanthropy is, both the club and the region can only profit from such a generous investment. The on-field progress of Anzhi will certainly be interesting to watch; the club has very realistic targets of silverware and competing in the UEFA Champions League in the short term. Who knows what they will achieve this year and whether anymore star signings will board the plane to Dagestan.