sports blog by andy shenk

Where Will Anzhi Host Europa League Matches?

In Anzhi, Dagestan, Russian Football on May 26, 2012 at 2:55 PM

Anzhi Makhachkala begin their second-ever Europa League adventure on July 19 in the second qualifying round of the competition, which will consist of a two-leg tie. Anzhi’s opponent will be determined in the initial Europa League draw on June 25. By that time the club hopes that it will have some resolution to a question of much greater interest to its fanbase: where will Anzhi host its Europa League matches?

Since Anzhi’s founding in 1991, the club’s home has been ninety-year-old Dinamo Stadium, located in the heart of the Russian republic of Dagestan’s capital city, Makhachkala. The venue can seat about 16,000 fans and is conveniently located a few hundred yards from the city’s central square. For a brief period, however, in the early 2000’s, Anzhi played in a brand-new 20,000 seat arena, Khazar Stadium, ten kilometres south of Makhachkala. The venue consisted of four disconnected stands of bleachers located on the outskirts of Kaspiisk. The wind howled in from the desolate coastal plain on which the stadium was built, blasting through each unprotected corner of the field to make life miserable for players and fans alike.

Of more importance to the club’s financial health, attendance steadily dropped from year to year at Khazar. In 2000 and 2001, when Anzhi still played at Dinamo and competed in Russia’s top flight, over 13,000 fans regularly packed the stadium. By 2006 no more than a few hundred were turning out at Khazar to watch Anzhi slog through Russia’s second division. Not only was the team struggling to compete, but transportation to and from Khazar was a complete disaster. Most Dagestanis rely on public transportation and fans quite often struggled to make it to the game, or, even worse, were stranded following the match because not enough busses had returned to bring fans back to Makhachkala.

Thus, beginning with the second half of the 2006 season Anzhi returned to its first home, Dinamo Stadium. Attendance immediately rose and the team also steadily improved, finally regaining admission to the Russian Premier League following the 2009 season

Just over a year later, in early 2011, a Dagestani billionaire, Suleiman Kerimov, took control of the club and announced ambitious plans to infuse the squad with new talent and dramatically enhance the club’s infrastructure.

Almost immediately, top international players began showing up in Makhachkala: legendary Brazilian Roberto Carlos, up-and-coming Moroccan Mbarak Boussoufa, Hungarian mid-fielder Balazs Dzsudzsak. In the summer transfer season Anzhi shocked the football world when it plucked 30-year-old Cameroonian forward Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan, inking Eto’o to a three-year contract worth $90 million. Still others followed, including Yuri Zhirkov, one of Russia’s finest talents, and Christopher Samba, a top defender in the English Premier League.

Not surprisingly, the club’s ambitions on the field were matched by their commitment to provide top-notch facilities for their athletes and fans. Dinamo Stadium received some upgrades, including a brand-new pitch and renovated locker rooms. Given the lack of space available, however, to expand seating, club management began searching for a different location on which to build a new stadium, as well as a modern training complex.

While rumors swirled that the new stadium would be an ultramodern, 40,000-seat, $300 million jewel located outside of Makhachkala, construction quietly began in the early spring of 2011 at Anzhi’s old stadium, Khazar. As Anzhi revealed in the coming months, Khazar Stadium, to be renamed Anzhi Arena, would serve as a transitional arena while the mega stadium location was chosen and eventually transformed into the club’s new home.

The club needed a new home for several reasons while it waited for its ultimate stadium, tentatively titled Anzhi City, to be built. To begin with, Anzhi’s popularity had increased so dramatically in 2011 that many fans were able to get tickets to home matches. Anzhi Arena would seat at least 28,000, allowing the club to increase its box office take, in addition to increasing fan accessibility to Anzhi games. Along with accommodating the fanbase, Anzhi Arena would help to entice more elite players, accustomed to playing in modern European arenas, not backwater Russian stadiums from the early part of the 20th century.

Most importantly, Dinamo did not meet Europa League or Champions League standards. As soon as Suleiman Kerimov took ownership and announced plans to significantly upgrade the level of talent at Anzhi, management began anticipating that the club would qualify for European competition as soon as 2012. If a satisfactory stadium was not available in Dagestan by the summer of 2012, when the Europa League and Champions League begin their qualifying rounds, Anzhi would be forced to host the opposition in a UEFA-approved stadium hundreds of miles from Dagestan and Anzhi’s impassioned fanbase. With the team already based in Kratovo, a suburb outside of Moscow, due to a lack of modern training facilities in Dagestan, and only flying to Makhachkala the day before home matches, moving Anzhi’s highly-anticipated European ties outside of Dagestan would reinforce the stereotype that Anzhi was only loosely connected to its geographical home.

An official depiction of the stadium’s final appearance

In September 2011 an unofficial interview with one of the construction managers suggested that Anzhi might be able to begin play at Anzhi Arena as early as that November. That proved overly optimistic; November came and went with the stadium nowhere near completion. In early December, the chief project manager Idris Idrisov gave an official update on the team website. Though progress was being made, the construction firm responsible for the project, Yugstroiservis, had moved back the stadium’s projected completion date to summer 2012, in time for the beginning of the 2012-2013 season.

Little else was known about Anzhi Arena’s status for the rest of the winter and early spring. A short article, chronicling head coach Guus Hiddink’s visit to the site in early March, provided a glimpse of the on-going construction.

Guus Hiddink visits Anzhi Arena on March 25, 2012

Even from the limited view of the stadium provided, it looked obvious that an enormous amount of work remained. Online forums on the team website, fc-anzhi.ru, and on Anzhi’s fan club website, dd05.ru, bubbled over with questions about whether the project was still on schedule. Rumors abounded that nothing had been done at the site since the previous fall, that workers were not getting paid, and that the stadium had multiple significant structural defects.

The conversation on these forums inevitably turned philosophical: Why is it so difficult to complete significant projects in Dagestan? Cynical answers, of course, were plentiful. Dagestan, even more so than Russia, is beset with rampant corruption. Though Kerimov’s take-over had given hope to many that one of their own, an extremely successful businessman who was familiar with European business practices, might buck the trend and actually ensure that money budgeted for infrastructure projects would be used appropriately and not end up in the wrong pockets, the construction delays and broken promises seemed too depressingly familiar to ignore.

Anzhi Arena’s construction was only meant to be an initial step in the club’s transformation. Kerimov had explicitly characterized his ownership of Anzhi as a social project through which he would strive to strengthen his native land by providing an economic stimulus with the construction of stadiums and influx of football tourists. On top of that, Anzhi planned to build soccer academies throughout Dagestan to educate and develop thousands of young men. All of Dagestan, even those apathetic towards football, could not help but be inspired by the example of their countryman cutting through the webs of corruption and stagnation to provide the republic with stadiums and training academies the rival of the top European football clubs. If this all proved to be empty promises on the wind, it would be a sore blow, indeed, for residents of Russia’s poorest region.

With each passing month, frustration continued to mount among Anzhi fans. The most recent official look at the stadium came courtesy of a May 10 visit to the construction site by several members of the Anzhi fan club, the Wild Division,where they met again with Idris Idrisov and with club official Narvik Sukhaev. Sukhaev informed the visitors that the stadium’s target completion date was now September, though he emphasized that they should not put too much stock in that date, either, as there remained many subjective factors, which could delay the stadium’s grand opening until spring 2013.

Anzhi Arena as of May 10, 2012

A week later, Anzhi’s general director, Aivaz Kaziakhmedov, sat down for an interview with participants from the stadium tour. Kaziakhmedov reiterated that the club hoped to open the stadium in September, but that certain factors out of Anzhi’s control could push its grand opening back to 2013.

He also addressed several concerns that the recent stadium visit had raised among fans. When asked about the rumor that construction workers were not being paid, Kaziakhmedov responded dismissively: “You’ve said, ‘rumors are going around…’ That’s all they are, rumors.” With regard to the amount of work yet to be done on Anzhi Arena, he shared that a new construction firm had recently begun work. “We’ve even gone so far as to convert several stadium offices into dormitories for the new workers,” Kaziakhmedov said.

Near the end  of the interview, Kazhiakhmedov gave his opinion on where Anzhi would host its Europa League matches. With Anzhi Arena expected to be completed no earlier than September, Anzhi’s general director confidently predicted that “most likely, in fact, we’ll begin our Europa League matches at Dinamo.” Of course, if the UEFA inspectors refused to certify Dinamo, Anzhi would be forced to look into hosting matches in either Krasnodar or Vladikavkaz.

Predictably, Anzhi fans reacted cynically to the stadium construction news. DAIDAI, one of the most active forum users at fc-anzhi.ru, answered caustically another user’s question about construction plans for Anzhi City: “What new stadium?:) Just let me see this arena completed; I don’t need anything more:)” Another forum regular, hamza, pondered whether all these delays weren’t part of an elaborate scheme, “Maybe Kerimov did this on purpose so that Dagestanis could see how our “local specialists” work (Anzhi Arena is being built by a Dagestani construction firm). Then, when they begin building the new stadium, no one will be able to question him when he brings foreigners in to do the work.” dragmk recalled how long it took his school in Derbent to be rebuilt, “With us (Dagestanis) everything’s always done through the *ss. My school in Derbent burnt to the ground when I was in ninth grade. Four years later they still hadn’t rebuilt it. Of course, when they began reconstruction, the school principal went out and bought a new Toyota (school principals in Dagestan might officially make $5000/yr, while Toyotas cost more than they do in the United States).”

Until Anzhi Arena is completed, Anzhi fans will continue to question management’s commitment to follow through on its promises. They’ve promised a kingdom to their lucky fans and all Dagestanis. Anzhi Arena’s ongoing construction will be one very important step in determining whether owner Suleiman Kerimov is serious in his plans to energize Dagestani football, and the republic along with it.

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