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In 2013, they finished 3rd in the Russian Premier League, but now Anzhi are likely to fold.
It was a sorry sight, but one that had plagued Anzhi Makhachkala throughout the football calendar: on the last day of the season – and potentially in their last ever Russian Premier League match – only 2,250 seats of the 28,000-capacity stadium were filled. With a turnout of just 8%, the vast expanse of empty rows reinforced the meaningless of the tie. It’s as if the Dagestan city could not have cared less.
It’s been a spectacular decade for the 28-year old club. Having been promoted to the first tier in 2009, Anzhi were then taken over by a local billionaire two years later. Suleyman Kerimov was an astute businessman. By funding purchases of shares with million and billion dollar loans from the state-owned Russian banks Vnesheconombank and Sberbank, Kerimov built up a personal wealth of $17.5 billion by 2008, repaying his creditors in impressive time. His first major loan, worth $43 million, was settled within four months. So when he gained a 100% stake in Anzhi, courtesy of the local authorities in exchange for his help with the club and football in the Dagestan republic, fans were understandably excited.
Within two years, Anzhi had risen to the dizzying heights of a third-place finish in the Russian top-flight – the best in their short history – and boasted an array of international talent, managed by the highly capable Guus Hiddink. Between 2011 and the summer of 2013, Roberto Carlos, Christopher Samba, Yuri Zhirkov, Jucilei, Lassana Diarra, Igor Denisov, Samuel Eto’o, Willian, Lacina Traore, Aleksander Kokorin, and Fyodor Smolov, all at some point pulled on the yellow and green jerseys of Anzhi. Well, in fact, Kokorin didn’t even manage that; he was sold just weeks after joining.
Seemingly overnight, in August 2013, something changed and the entire squad was supposedly made available for transfer. Following Hiddink’s resignation two games into the 2013/14 campaign, former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen was placed in temporary charge. Three weeks later, the squad was dismantled, with groups of players being flogged in package deals.
It was a change in direction so fast that Ronaldo’s hips would be proud. From a 2012 three-year plan to be in the Champions League, to a wholesale quickfire departure of the majority of their first team that left them decimated. It was a drastic move, and in a desperate attempt to explain it, it was rumoured that Kerimov’s health was in decline.
“Kerimov was also dissatisfied with results,” David Sansun, the editor of Russian Football News, explains to me, “but nothing has been officially confirmed. I imagine the costs were just seeming too vast, plus the ruble started to tumble which did not help things at all.”
In fact, Kerimov went from the 36th richest man in the world, with an estimated worth of $17.5 billion, down to $6.9 billion in the space of six years. Today, Forbes gives his real time net worth as $6.2 billion. Not only has he seen his bank account drop to the tune of £11 billion, but Kerimov has also in recent years found himself under sanctions from the US, arrested for tax evasion, and pulling the plug on the Anzhi project entirely in December 2016.
“I think every owner’s involvement with their club from the Glazers to Gazprom, to Kerimov, is almost certainly dubious,” Sansun, a self-taught Russophone, expresses to me, “the stories I’ve heard from behind the scenes in football, Russia or otherwise, would lead anyone to think there were some dodgy things going on. The FFP fine they got in 2014 is testament to the recklessness in spending.”
In 2014, alongside Manchester City and Paris St-Germain, who were punished the hardest, Anzhi, Galatasaray, Trabzonspor, Bursaspor, Zenit St Petersburg, Rubin Kazan, and Levski Sofia, were all sanctioned by UEFA for various breaches of their Financial Fair Play rules. The summer transfer window activity of 2013 may have pre-empted what was coming, and in the wake of the sales, Anzhi made a conscious decision to refocus their transfer policy to domestic talent and a particular focus on what they could produce from their own academy.
Opened in 2012 and funded by Kerimov, who also had the stadium redeveloped, the youth academy looked to be a promising move for the future and aimed to ensure that Anzhi had the pick of the bunch from across the whole of Dagestan – a region that encompasses 50,400km² and has a population of 3 million. I ask Sansun if it could be deemed a success in light of the fact that Anzhi were relegated just a year after the change in policy, and although they returned at the first time of trying, they have ultimately been relegated once more.
“With the club potentially dissolving, there’s no better time to judge. The desire to use homegrown players is good and well-wished, and there has been some success indeed, as they qualified for this season’s UEFA Youth League.
“The club scraped together money to send their kids off to Israel, though they were knocked out at the first stage. They were lucky to qualify, having beaten a number of stronger Russian teams to get there, and therefore struggled. We’ve seen them use 12 academy players in the first team squad this season, but that’s primarily as they’ve been unable to use anyone else, particularly in the spring.”
The successes, he told me, can be Gamid Agalarov and Pavel Kaloshin, should they develop as he expects. Agalarov was born in Makhachkala on July 16th, 2000, and came through the academy at Anzhi, joining the first team in 2017 and earning his debut just 12 days after his 18th birthday. The striker has scored 7 goals in 17 appearances for Russia’s U18 and U19 team, and with a broad physique and full beard, looks far more imposing than his age would suggest. Along with Kaloshin, a 6’5 21-year old centre-back who signed for Anzhi last year, they may well be the only remnants left of Anzhi, should the club fold as Sansun anticipates.
“The desire to develop young players was always there but the need for results saw the path to the first team become difficult. Agalarov has a great youth record, but after a couple of sub appearances at the start of the season, it took him until relegation was already confirmed to play again. This is a young guy with big potential. It’s in the club’s interest to bring through young players for selling on, so it seemed crazy not to do it.”
Even more bizarre, as explained by Sansun to me, was that they had already tried and tested the method this season and had been successful. Danil Glebov was an “academy success story,” and after spending a season in the reserves, he broke through into the first team, debuting in September, before being sold to FC Rostov in January of this year.
In December 2016, Kerimov sold the club to Osman Kadiyev, the former president of the city’s other club, Dynamo, who had dissolved in 2007 after being denied a professional license and ended up relegated to amateur level. The takeover brought renewed hope to Anzhi; he was, after all, a man with experience in the role and could give the time required to turn the club’s fortunes around. There was still a source of income coming through player sales and owner investment, and the – by then, well-established – policy of domestic purchases and promotion from the academy, meant the club weren’t haemorrhaging money on ferrying their once expensively assembled squad from Moscow, where they’d train and live due to safety concerns, to Makhachkala. So troubled were UEFA about the situation in Dagestan – a 2011 BBC report described it as ‘the most dangerous place in Europe’ – Anzhi were obliged to play their European fixtures in Moscow, which wasn’t much of a problem considering it is where the bulk of the squad were living and training, but it was a costly expedition.
“Nothing special,” is how Sansun, who spent three weeks of the 2018 World Cup in Kazan and Moscow, describes Kadiyev’s running of the club. “I don’t know the reasons behind Dynamo Makhachkala’s collapse, but you’d think he may have learnt his lesson. He’s gone down several routes, getting in foreign coaches like Pavel Vrba, young domestic coaches such as Aleksandr Grigoryan, and eventually local coaches like the current man [Magomed] Adiev. Each step down the ladder, a sign of the deterioration behind the scenes.”
Current, that was, when Sansun and I spoke. By the time I’d put pen to paper, Adiev had resigned. Miraculously, he had not done it sooner. Over the course of the season, the manager and his players encountered situations in which they had to fund their own flights to and from games, eat bread and mayonnaise because they could not afford to pay for dinner while waiting for a flight transfer, and, for some, spend upwards of ten months without pay. It is little wonder that Anzhi scored just 13 goals all season and a minor miracle that they managed five wins and to not finish bottom – they finished second from it.
“I do not know whether the club will remain,” Adiev told Russia’s Sport Express. “Recently I talked with Kadiev; he is making efforts so that the club does not cease to exist to be, at least, in the second league. It is clear that he is in a difficult situation, but he does not want to give up on Anzhi.”
However, Sansun is not optimistic. “I personally expect the club will cease to exist. If they do cling on, they won’t be back in the top-flight for a number of years. There is a huge desire to get the World Cup stadiums in the RPL, and there are still four stadiums sitting in the 2nd tier. The RPL is likely to expand to 18 teams so that there is room for all of the stadia to be used there, and for none of them to become white elephants.”
Should Anzhi fight on for their existence, it will be a far cry from the Russian Premier League and couldn’t be further from the days in which they lined up with a World Cup winner at left-back, and a four-time African Player of the Year up-front. It is likely that they’ll end up in the third tier, in which they could play in the southern district, or even as low as the fourth tier, at which point they’d be looking at playing in a Dagestani regional league. Sansun believes that, should that be the case, a merger with Adiev’s old club, Legion Makhachkala, is the most probable outcome.
Looking back at the past ten years, it is hard to imagine that running costs would be the downfall of a club owned by a multi-billionaire but keeping a team in the Russian Premier League is a costly exercise, with little reward or incentive for doing so – at least domestically. If Anzhi does go bust, they’ll just be one in an increasingly growing list. In the past 12 months, Amkar Perm, Volgar Astrakhan, and FC Tosno have all dissolved. Tosno’s dissolution came exactly one month after winning the 2018 Russian Cup, which thus qualified them for the Europa League. Even clubs like Rubin Kazan – Sansun’s side – and CSKA Moscow are being run on “shoestring budgets” he tells me.
“I don’t think there are any real feelings towards them now,” Sansun replies when I ask if Anzhi’s buccaneering approach in the transfer market at the beginning of the decade got people’s back up. “Obviously at the time there was malcontent, but there was also some admiration for the players that they were bringing to Russia, allowing Russian fans a look at some stars.”
“Nowadays, it’s a mix. There’s been support for them from the Russian Football Union, other clubs, and, primarily, former players, domestic and foreign. I don’t think anyone really wants to see the club fold, but at the same time no-one’s really doing anything about it.”
Ever the football romantic, I ask him if there’s any chance of a dream ending to Anzhi’s story; maybe a return from Kerimov, unwilling to let his hometown’s side fall apart so spectacularly.
“No,” he says, immediately binning the movie script, “his involvement in football is over. It’s really down to the state to save the club now, but it’s hard to see any salvation at this stage.” But what he shares with me next has me uncrumpling the sheet from out of the bin. “There were suggestions of getting UFC star Khabib [Nurmagomedov] in to help – he supports the club – but he’s never given any money. Former player Roberto Carlos offered to help financially if asked, but I don’t think it will really happen.” I drop it back into the bin.
Since the season ended two weeks ago, Anzhi have already lost their manager and even before his resignation, their star player had gone. Venezuelan international striker Andres Ponce, who scored 5 of Anzhi’s 13 league goals, left on a free, hopping the border to join his compatriot, centre-back Wilker Angel, at Chechnyan club FC Akhmat Grozny. What happens over the course of the next few weeks will be vital in deciding whether Anzhi Makhachkala will exist at the start of next season, and, if so, where.
For all that will be decided and settled in the coming month, exactly why Kerimov changed tact so suddenly that summer six years ago, will remain unknown. The quickfire sale of all the club’s key players not only failed to make any football sense but also did not fit Kerimov’s wider approach to business and investment. The whole escapade reeked of a man defeated by the geography and politics of his birthplace. As the biblical verse goes, “truly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own hometown.”