sports blog by andy shenk

Anzhi and the Burden of Fame

In Anzhi, Dagestan, Russian Football on October 25, 2012 at 9:51 AM

Not long ago, Anzhi Makhachkala plied its trade in Russia’s second league. A small, hardly visible club with a decent following in its home republic of Dagestan. The North Caucasus side played in run-down stadiums before mediocre crowds, a return to Russia’s Premier League (RPL) the avowed goal.

Still, what would even that lofty accomplishment do for the provincial club? The financial gulf between the average Russian side and a team able to compete for Russia’s medals and advance in European competition is vast. Anzhi’s best-case scenario for the future appeared to be promotion, then survival for as long as possible under the bright lights of the RPL. Oh, they might make a run at the Russian Cup or threaten occasionally for Europa League qualification, but surely nothing more was expected of the team.

At the same time, however, in the late 2000’s, rumors started to proliferate that a wealthy businessman from southern Dagestan, Suleiman Kerimov, might one day purchase the club. And he was wealthy, yes, wealthy beyond any Dagestani’s dreams.

Born in the ancient Dagestani city of Derbent, Kerimov’s family originally came from the mountains southwest of Derbent. Their native village, Karakyure, lies a stone’s throw from the Russia-Azerbaijan border. Kerimov secured his wealth in Russia’s tumultuous 1990’s, investing in all the right companies and natural resources, following their privatization, so successfully, in fact, that by the middle of the 2000’s, his net worth came to $7-8 billion. As is often the case for Russian oligarchs, Kerimov entered politics. He currently represents Dagestan in the Russian Senate, Russia’s richest politician at the time of his appointment.

Known for his passion for wrestling – Kerimov underwrites the Russian National Wrestling Federation – the hope that he might turn his eye to football and rescue Anzhi from obscurity lay in the back of many Anzhi fans’ minds.

So when the news came in January 2011, one year after Anzhi had regained a place in the RPL (they finished 11th in 2010), that Kerimov had indeed assumed ownership of Anzhi Makhachkala, the long-dreamed of rags-to-riches story proved even more dramatic than anyone could have imagined. Kerimov wasted no time unveiling plans for new stadiums, training academies, elite foreign players, and an assault on the highest peaks of European football.

The first new fruits were an influx of famous and semi-famous footballers prior to Anzhi’s 2011/2012 RPL campaign…Roberto Carlos, Mbarak Boussoufa, Odil Akhmedov, Jucilei. Soon after, Anzhi began renovating Khazar Stadium, located a few miles south of Makhachkala along the Caspian Sea. Built in 2002, Anzhi abandoned the drafty, hard-to-reach arena within a few years, returning to ninety-year-old Dinamo Stadium in Makhachkala. Now, however, the club planned to completely enclose the previously exposed field, preventing the gusts of wind that disrupted play in the past, as well as solve the transportations problems.

Still, after the initial storm of media publicity in the winter and early spring, Anzhi drifted off the radar. The team played well in Russia, maintaining a spot in the top half, but without European competition and little access to Russian football outside of the country, there wasn’t much to see. The summer transfer season, however, brought the team back into the public eye. With almost every big name in football linked to a move to Dagestan, the club’s reputation as reckless and fiscally irresponsible grew. A few of the big names signed, too, Yuri Zhirkov from Chelsea and most famously, Samuel Eto’o from Inter.

Following Eto’o’s arrival last August, big player transfers noticeably slowed and in their absence, the attention paid to Anzhi Makhachkala subsided once again for many months. The team ensured a spot in Russia’s quirky top-8 spring season in 2012 – the league transitioning over 18 months from a spring-fall to the standard fall-spring cycle. They chose to conclude their 2011/2012 marathon season by separating the top 8 and bottom 8 clubs at the end of 2011, and schedule fourteen weeks of play the following spring, contested exclusively within the two divisions.

The biggest news of the winter, however, concerned Anzhi’s search for a new coach. Gadzhi Gadzhiev was shown the door in October 2011, and Anzhi held off until December to appoint their new manager, when they surprisingly on outsider Yuri Krasnozhan, former Russia youth coach. Reports that Guus Hiddink had turned down the job swirled and the pressure on Krasnozhan to properly manage Anzhi’s famous and wealthy roster multiplied.

Krasnozhan didn’t last long. Less than two months after his appointment, still a month until the season would resume in March, Anzhi released him and brought Guus Hiddink on board. The club’s disgraceful treatment of Krasnozhan made waves internationally and the team’s general buzz outside of Dagestan after one year under Kerimov suffered even more.

Beginning with their splashy signing of over-the-hill Roberto Carlos and the Bugatti Veyron he received for his birthday two months later, to the suspicious relocation of the team’s practice facilities to FC Saturn Moscow’s former camp outside of Moscow, to Eto’o’s enormous contract with the club, and, finally, the Krasnozhan sacking, in spring 2012 Anzhi looked every bit a Russian oligarch’s plaything and nothing more.

For the next few months, during the quiet conclusion to their 2012 season, which saw them take 5th in Russian and barely qualify for the Europa League, little news came out of Dagestan, apart from their signing of former Blackburn defender Christopher Samba and the return of keeper Vladimir Gabulov from CSKA. Guus Hiddink gained familiarity with the team and the club prepared for a more intense schedule in the fall, in addition to the always captivating summer transfer season.

The Europa League bid, if scarcely noticed outside of Russia, created immense interest within Dagestan. Eleven years prior, Anzhi played Glasgow Rangers in a one-game tie in Poland in the now-defunct UEFA Cup. At that time, the home-and-away series had been moved to a neutral location due to security concerns in restive Chechnya, which borders Dagestan. Now, many years later, the club had a second chance to host European competition and present a more positive side to the often negative international portrayal of Russia’s North Caucasus.

When UEFA, in early July, once again banned European teams from traveling to Dagestan because of security concerns,  disappointment and outrage spread throughout the fan base and the area. Many directed their anger at UEFA president Michel Platini, but frustration also began to bubble over among the Anzhi faithful at the club’s inability to overturn the ban. Fans suspected the club’s decision to train outside of Dagestan and only fly to Makhachkala the day before games had influenced UEFA’s decision. Though the official reason given for Anzhi’s relocation to Moscow is a lack of proper training facilities in Makhachkala, the common assumption is that the club would struggle to sign top-flight players, if they had to live in Dagestan’s capital. UEFA, reading the news reports from Dagestan of ant-terrorist operations and frequent bombings, wouldn’t be that stretched to believe that Anzhi players were not just uncomfortable, but also afraid to live in Makhachkala, given they visit their home city for only 24 hours every two weeks during the season. Why, then, should European clubs have to visit at all?

The loss of Europa League home games, plus a lack of visible progress in developing the club’s infrastructure, understandably caused no little concern in Makhachkala for Anzhi’s future.

Some questioned whether the team ever intended to return to Makhachkala after a year and a half away in Russia’s capital. Others wanted to know when Anzhi’s youth academy in Makhachkala would open, and if renovations at Khazar Stadium, to be renamed Anzhi Arena, would ever be completed after the club initially announced the stadium would be ready in fall 2011. Not as pressing, but still upsetting, was the club’s complete silence regarding its plans to establish football schools and athletic pitches in most of Dagestan’s major towns. Dagestanis were desperate for the club to prove its detractors wrong, to reverse the generally held opinion outside of the republic that Kerimov was only involved for selfish reasons  and cared not for Dagestan’s athletic and economic development.

Well, if the club’s image both locally and internationally reached rock bottom in early July, the tide slowly began to turn back in Anzhi’s favor. The team romped through their three rounds of Europa League qualification, hosting Honved, Vitesse, and AZ Alkmaar in Moscow. Each round brought favorable press, as their opponents offered support for Anzhi’s right to play Europa League matches in Dagestan. And the winning, albeit far from home, helped soothe the bitterness of many Anzhi fans. The club was progressing before their eyes and hope remained that this year would be the last UEFA dared to refuse Dagestan its place in Europe.

As for infrastructure, the club finally delivered on several promises – the Anzhi youth academy opened in early October, while 31,000-seat Anzhi Arena reaches the final stages of reconstruction. If not this fall, then next March the stadium will surely be ready for play. Other dreams, that of gleaming football fields and academies stretching across Dagestan’s Caucasus mountains and Caspian shoreline, the team’s permanent return to Makhachkala, and an ultramodern 45,000-seater in the Makhachkala suburbs, remain, but they don’t seem as urgent.

And, on the pitch, Anzhi’s nearly perfect season continues to pick up steam. They’ve lost only once, in Moscow 1-0 to CSKA, and they can claim an away draw with Udinese, a home draw with Zenit, and home wins over Young Boys and Spartak as their major accomplishments thus far. They’ve still a tricky schedule to navigate this fall, with visits to Lokomotiv, Rubin, and Zenit, not to mention their remaining Europea League fixtures, but the club’s perch on top of RPL and four points from two matches in the Group A of the Europe League look quite nice.

More importantly, the club’s outside image has risen dramatically in just a few months. Smart personnel moves, such as their acquisition and use of many of Russia’s rising young footballers – Oleg Shatov, Georgy Gabulov, Fyodor Smolov, Serder Serderov, Nikita Burmistrov – have built up a measure of goodwill for the Dagestani side from skeptical Russian football observers who sharply critiqued their big money moves last season.

Roberto Carlos’ popular football classes with youth in provincial Russian cities where Anzhi plays, most recently, Yekaterinburg and Vladikavkaz, look good on TV and in the newspaper. The club’s sensitivity, too, has touched many hearts. While in Vladikavkaz, the team paid their respects to victims of the Beslan hostage crisis. Prior to last weekend’s match with Spartak, Anzhi honored the memory of the Spartak fans who died at Luzhniki thirty years ago. And, just yesterday, immediately following their practice at Anfield Road, Anzhi laid a wreath at the Hillsborough memorial.

The club’s fame, most clearly evidenced by the upcoming Europa League match with Liverpool, is rising. Though, for now, most outside of Russia only associate Eto’o, Hiddink, Carlos, extremist violence, and the bizarre tongue-twister name of Makhachkala with the club, their acceptance into Europe’s footballing elite isn’t far off, if Suleiman Kerimov is to be believed. Perhaps then some will see a bit beyond the sensationalist headlines and learn something of Dagestan’s beautiful mountains, famous hospitality, thousands and thousands of years of rich history and deep pride as a united, though diverse, republic of 35 distinct people groups, each with their own language.

Anzhi and its fans hope they can open the world’s eyes to Dagestan. The first step is for the club to gain respect for their play on the field, and not just the juicy gossip off it. When, and if, that is achieved, then Anzhi’s fame may play an even greater role in revitalizing the fascinating republic it represents.

  1. thanks for this informative article! We were talking about Anzhi yesterday at Shenksgiving, so this is a great follow up (even tho you wrote it awhile ago). Will they be playing in the spring in Moscow?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: