Russian football has always been a tricky subject in Europe, not because of anything sinister, but because it has always been hard to gauge just how good it is. The Russian Premier League always seems to contain a scattering of excellent players and teams such as Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow are likely to be clubs that the fans of other teams in European competition would prefer to avoid. Then, in contrast, the Russian national team, which usually carries big expectations, often fails to make an impact at major tournaments. Since becoming the Russian national team, rather than the Soviet Union, they have only made it past the group stage at a major tournament once in 22 years.
For a short while, between the years of 2011 and 2013, it looked as though the Russian domestic game could be about to make a huge impact on world football, even if the national team was failing. Billionaire Suleyman Kerimov took 100% control of his local team, Anzhi Makhachkala in January of 2011. The ambitions of Kerimov were simple, he planned to use his wealth not only to build a new stadium, but to bring in the players that would put them firmly on the footballing map and see them qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Kerimov had barely been in control of the club for a month before footballing legend and 2002 World Cup winner, Roberto Carlos arrived in Makhachkala as the highest paid player in Russian football. It was a statement of intent and Carlos was soon joined by the likes of Jucilei from Corinthians and Mbark Boussoufa from Anderlecht as Kerimov used his financial muscle.
The spending continued into the following transfer window as Balazs Dzsudzsak and Russian international Yuri Zhirkov joined the club from PSV and Chelsea respectively. Then came the biggest signing yet, the one that really made the name Anzhi Makhachkala known, not just in Europe, but all over the world. Samuel Eto'o joined Kerimov's project in August 2011 and was reported to be earning over €20million per year, making him the highest paid footballer in the world. Add to that the later additions of a world class manager in Guus Hiddink and players such as Willian and Lassana Diarra and you should begin to develop a picture of the dream world that Anzhi fans found themselves in for 28 months.
The signing of Eto'o was a huge surprise. This wasn't some over the hill legend in search of one last payday whilst playing a lesser level of football in a nice warm climate. This was one of the biggest names in world football who had just scored 21 goals in Serie A and won the Champions League just two seasons earlier rocking up on the Caspian Sea. Eto'o also wouldn't be living in LA or New York and mixing with the local celebrities, he would be living in Moscow and flying into his home games because the Dagestan region was too unstable to be considered a safe place for the players to reside.
Results on the pitch didn't quite reflect the huge money that was being pumped into the club. A finish of 5th in the 2011/12 season was followed by a 3rd place finish in 2012/13. Both finishes earned them a spot in the Europa League where they would exit at the last 16 phase on both occasions. Usually this is the part of the story where you would expect the following season to be even better but the rise of Anzhi Makhachkala was over. It was now time to prepare for the fall.
Kerimov announced in August 2013, just two and a half years after taking over, that the annual budget of the team would need to be cut by two thirds. The reasons for this sudden change of heart have been debated, but the most common and accepted reason is that his primary business, Uralkali, severed a trade agreement with a company from Belarus. This resulted in the rapid devaluation of the company with Kerimov taking a hugely significant financial hit in the process. Credit is due to Kerimov however as he did not walk away from the club to redirect his funds elsewhere as he could have done. This was not a Sugar Daddy who had grown bored of his new toy, it was simply a realisation (perhaps a forced one) that the club must cut its cloth accordingly if it was to survive long term as it could not rely solely on the bank balance of Kerimov.
This began a mass exodus of players as the 'For Sale' signs went up above just about everybodies heads. Russian stars Zhirkov, Denisov and Kokorin were shipped off to Dynamo Moscow despite the latter two players having only just signed for the club (Kokorin hadn't even had chance to take to the pitch in a yellow shirt yet). Eto'o and Willian went to Chelsea, Diarra and Boussoufa joined Lokomotiv Moscow and numerous other players left the Dagestani club almost as quickly as they had arrived. Unsurprisingly, as a result of this everything-must-go style sale, the 2013/14 season ended in disaster as the club were relegated, finishing bottom of the table and winning just three matches.
Loan signings were made throughout the 2013/14 season in an attempt to stave off relegation but with no player able to score more than two goals in the league all season, their primary problem was blatant. If the previous two seasons had been heaven for the fans of Anzhi, then the 2013/14 season was an embarrassing hell. Kerimov would not however, let the club sink any further and so the nightmare second chapter of Anzhi's recent history, the fall, was quickly over.
I used the term 'partial re-rise' in the title of this feature because that is all it can really be billed as for now. The club were shrewd in the transfer market to prepare themselves for the 2014/15 season in Russia's second tier. Players were signed from Ukraine and Russia, many of whom knew the division and what would be required of them. There was no worldwide media attention on the club anymore, the Kerimov project could work away quietly and efficiently to get back on track. Promotion was achieved at the first time of asking as they finished 2nd in the Russian National Football League, just two points short of winning the title. Anzhi would therefore return to the Premier League, but this time around, things would be done a different way. Perhaps the right way.
Yannick Boli, who was the top scorer the previous season with 15 league goals was the man who should likely be thanked for their Premier League survival in 2015/16. The club finished 13th in the table which meant that they entered a relegation play-off. Anzhi were victorious and won the play-off, 3-0 on aggregate, with Boli scoring twice. Keen not to flirt so closely with relegation again, more encouraging signings were made prior to the 2016/17 season. Players such as Ivo Ilicevic and Gabriel Obertan were signed from Hamburg and Newcastle United respectively and loan signings were made from clubs such as Bordeaux and Shakhtar Donetsk. Perhaps the best signing of all though was that of a new manager, Pavel Vrba who had previously been the Czech Republic national team boss since 2014. As a relatively high profile manager compared to the names they had employed during the clubs fall, Vrba, it seems, would prove a good fit.
The current season is going well for Anzhi. At the time of writing they are sat in 8th position in the table and have already beaten Rubin Kazan and earned draws with Zenit and current champions, CSKA. There is no doubt that the club is in the best position it has been in since the clear out of the talent they could once boast. The likes of Samuel Eto'o, Willian and Roberto Carlos will no doubt feel like a lifetime ago for most fans of the Dagestani club. Their meteoric rise in 2011 was not sustainable, the fans and most likely Kerimov too, will have known this. Perhaps the financial trouble that hit Kerimov in 2013 was a blessing in disguise for Anzhi as one must wonder, where would the club be now if the investment had continued?
This question is one that we will never know the answer to, but my guess is that if they hadn't won the Russian Premier League by now, with that kind of investment, Kerimov may well have sold the club off. Success in the UEFA Champions League is even harder to come by as Manchester City have found out in recent years and Kerimov now appears to be playing the long game. The club is in a position where by their owner is a very rich man and has invested in a new stadium which will last them for many years to come. He also is showing no signs of vacating the club meaning that their immediate future is secure whilst in the hands of a billionaire. The club is also investing in young Russian talent which is not only good for the future of Anzhi, but could also see the national team benefit longer term.
The club is now doing things the right way and is still on the rise. If the team can continue to improve then Europa League qualification may not be out of their grasp and with the absence of the big names, this would arguably be their biggest achievement yet. The average football fan may think that the club has disappeared off the face of the Earth but that is certainly not the case. Momentum is gathering in Makhachkala and there is sure to be many more surprises on the road ahead.
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