The oil rich state of Dagestan is an unlikely place to see a three time Champions League winner plying his trade. A region with a multitude of ethnic groups that is rife with religious tensions and where Islamic militants have been active since 1999. Terrorist attacks and assassinations are common place, with government officials and police chiefs being regularly targeted. Just last month the president’s chief spokesman was killed on his way to work. Christians are also increasingly becoming the target of attacks. In 2010 a Muslim convert to Christianity was murdered by gunman and Pastors within Mackhachala are regularly intimidated and harassed. An increased presence of high profile footballers within the region is likely to make them targets also which is partially why the players train and live in Moscow, 1000 miles away from the stadium in Dagestan.
Anzhi was taken over by Russian oligarch and Dagestan local Suleiman Kerimov in January 2011. Kerimov is a Russian senator and according to Forbes is worth $7.8 billion, putting him in good stead to compete with any club on the globe in terms of financial clout. However this takeover is arguably as much about politics as it as about football. Kerimov allegedly did not even buy the club but was gifted it by the Dagestan President in return for building a new 40,000 capacity stadium as well as improving infrastructure around the new stadium for a cost of £120 million.
Due to instability in the Caucasian region the government invests millions of pounds in developing the area much of which is through football, as has been the case with Terek Grozny in Checnya who through large scale investment were able to bring in former World Player Of The Year Ruud Gullit to manage the side and former Zaragoza and Dortmund forward Ewerthon.
Success for Anzhi would in theory take attention away from the political problems that exist within the region. So far it appears to be working. Despite the fact that on average a teacher within the region earns £50 a week compared to the alleged £340,000 a week Eto’o earns, there has been little, if any resentment. Even with the widespread political problems in Dagestan the home games are sold out and posters of Carlos, and soon to be Eto’o are on every wall. Perhaps the chance to watch some of the World’s biggest stars gives citizens of Dagestan a bit of respite from their volatile surroundings, and an increased investment in the area from Kerimov, an oligarch renowned for his philanthropy, could help improve the social problems that exist.
The prospect of Champions League football will surely further act to shift attention away from politics and onto Russia’s improving football scene, especially important in the context of the upcoming World Cup in 2018. One thing to be wary of perhaps is that if Anzhi loses its political significance perhaps it will also lose some of its investment.
Since Kerimov’s take over the club have brought in several players of note, the latest being the shock signing of Samuel Eto’o. Prior to that the club signed Roberto Carlos, two time Belgian player of the year Mbark Boussoufa, highly rated Hungarian Baazs Dzsudzsak, Zhirkov from Chelsea and highly rated Brazilian holding player Jucilei da Silva, who is already a full international for Brazil.SPL star Aiden McGeady joined Spartak Moscow from Celtic was voted the second best right winger in the league last season.
This is not the first time that Russian clubs have spent big in a bid to gain European Success. Zenit have done it before, signing a host of European stars, including the £25 million signing of Portuguese playmaker Danny, and hiring Dutch coach Dick Advocaat, who helped lead Zenit to UEFA cup success in 2008. CSKA Moscow also enjoyed UEFA cup success in 2005 with a squad boasting a number of young and upcoming Brazilian players such as Wagner Love and Daniel Carvalho. Neither side could however challenge Europeans top clubs in the Champions League or in the transfer market. The best stars of these sides being poached by Europe’s bigger clubs, for example Arshavin moving to Arsenal and Jo moving to Manchester City. Nor could either club, despite their vast resources, attract the sort of quality that would help them progress in Europe’s top competition. Even Eto’o despite all his qualities is now 30, and has arguably done it all in Europe’s biggest leagues, winning multiple league titles and three Champions League medals. Were he less accomplished, perhaps he would not have made the move despite the riches on offer. One could hardly imagine a ‘World class’ player in his prime still competing for Europe’s top honours moving to Anzhi.
Challenges Facing Anzhi
One huge problem in Russian football that will certainly have to be overcome by 2018 is the endemic problem of racism. Yuri Zhirkov for example was reportedly left in tears after being booed during Russia’s friendly against Serbia this month, apparently perceived by ultra-nationalist fans as having betrayed Russia by joining a club from the Caucasus. Discrimination against Caucasians is rife, riots broke out in December 2010 after the death of a football fan in a street fight earlier that month. The feeling of the riots being that Caucasians are not truly Russian as rioters shouted things like ‘Russia for Russians.’
The racism against black players in particular is so bad that Zenit St Peterburg fans vetoed a move for Mario Baloteli the summer before he joined City. Acording to former manager Dick Advocaat, “I would be happy to sign anyone, but the fans don’t like black players.’
Peter Odemwingie who was born to a Russian mother and Nigerian father said of this, “Every time a coloured player receives the ball you can hear it. The monkey noises…You can feel it. It was more painful for me than, say, Brazilian players who are black, because I’m Russian.” On leaving Lokomotiv Moscow some of his own fans put signs up saying ‘Thank you West Brom’ with banana’s around it.
Racism like this has already been a problem with Carlos having had bananas thrown at home this season, abuse that is unfortunately likely to be aimed at Eto’o as well. Such racism in Russia’s league will mean that firstly, some of the World’s top players will rule out moves to the club to avoid being the victims of abuse and secondly, that UEFA may take sanctions if any abuse occurs during Champions League matches involving any Russian clubs. After the banana throwing incident involving Roberto Carlos the FA did pledge to help eradicate racism. With such deep-seated racial problems in Russia it does remain to be seen how effective any anti-racist measures can be, at least in the short term.
Spending big will not make success a sure thing. As stated neither Zenit nor CSKA managed real success outside of the UEFA cup which in reality has become some what of a second rate trophy in the last 10 years or so. Clubs like the Uzbek side FC Bunyodkor have attempted to spend big in an attempt to make waves. Bringing in World Cup winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari on a contract worth £6 million per year as well as Brazilian legend Rivaldo who whilst at the tail end of his career still boasted remarkable technical ability. In fact in 2008 the club tried to ring in Samuel Eto’o but failed in a bid. The project has since fizzled out somewhat as the club has failed to make inroads in the Asian Champions League.
The problem for players interested in moves to Russia has never been one of wages, Russian teams have always been able to offer players favourable wages especially considering their low taxes. Despite needing to take a significant wage cut Arshavin still jumped at the opportunity to join Arsenal and play in a top European league with an increased chance of winning more sought after trophies. This will be the big problem for Anzhi, as teams in Europe like Man City or Madrid can still offer huge wages and most players would likely rather live in Madrid or Milan than Dagestan, where they can still earn very good money and will have an increased chance of winning Europe’s top competitions.
Russian football is still undoubtedly on the rise. Winning two UEFA cups in the space of three seasons through CSKA and Zenit is impressive, as well as Russia’s solid showing in Euro 2008 where they reached the semi-finals only to be knocked out by eventual winners Spain. However, Russian sides still have a long way to go before they can truly compete with the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United or Real Madrid, in terms of club brand and footballing ability.
For now Anzhi must focus on qualifying for the Champions League, even with the likes of Eto’o and Zhirkov the team only managed a disappointing draw against 14th place side Rostov (Although the two reportedly combined brilliantly to level up the score). Sitting in fourth it is still very much a possibility for the club with 8 games to play and probably the best squad in the division. The likes of Et’o, Carlos and Zhirkov could be back in the Champions League by next season. Success for Anzhi and Russian football will be an evolving process, not an over night sensation.