by Michael Pearson
In September 2011, the BBC declared Dagestan ‘the most dangerous place in Europe’.
A ‘Guerrilla War’ is being waged between Islamic insurgents and government security forces.
Dagestan, a poverty-ridden mountainous republic, comprised of more than 30 different ethnic groups, is supported by large financial subsidies from Moscow, while police and soldiers try to quell daily episodes of violence.
Considering this backdrop, it is preposterous to contemplate there is even a professional football team playing matches in the region, let alone an emerging Russian super club.
FC Anzhi Makhachkala, bankrolled by billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, are a football club littered with celebrated star names and lavishly paid performers.
Kerimov, a local entrepreneur, was born and educated in the Makhachkala and arrived at Anzhi with a reputation for grand gestures.
Described by the Financial Times as the “Russian Gatsby ” he is known for his opulent, celebrity-filled parties, where it is said he spends as much as $10 million entertaining his guests.
On taking ownership, in January 2011, he promised to use his 6.5 Billion fortune to transform Anzhi into a European force.
Kerimov signaled his intent early in his reign. He struck a deal for legendary Brazilian full-back Roberto Carlos.
Despite being 37 and in the dimming sunset of a glittering career, Carlos was offered $9 million a year to leave Corinthians and move to Russia. Unsurprisingly, he accepted.
The ‘Carlos extravagance’ successfully put Anzhi on the map.
As a sign of his gratitude (as if the $22.5 million wasn’t enough), Kerimov treated the 2002 World Cup winner to a Bugatti Veyron sports car, worth $3 million.
Nobody expected Kerimov’s next move.
In August 2011, Anzhi dumbfounded football and signed Samuel Eto.
Unlike other top players who have left big clubs for big money, Eto was (and still is) in his prime and a world class talent.
He became the highest paid footballer in history (he nets an astonishing 20 million euros per year), but his gluttonous salary buys more than a footballer.
Kerimov bought Eto to ensure European football, spark media interest, influence individuals in the game and attract further decorated stars to join his team.
All those objectives have been achieved.
The subsequent arrival of a top class Coach -Guus Hiddink- and the signings of Yuri Zhirkov, Christopher Samba, and now Lassana Diarra are testament to that.
The club isn’t just about short-term headline grabbing mega-deals. There’s a prudent long -term plan in place. The club believes blooding its own youngsters is just as big a priority, something they hope to achieve with the wonderfully named Jelle Goes as Academy Director.
Anzhi have begun the 2012/13 season imposingly. They sit 3rd in the Russian Premier League and have secured European football for the first time.
Due to security fears , Anzhi’s players and staff live and train in Moscow. They still play all their home league fixtures at their home stadium in Dagestan, but Uefa have banned them from hosting European football in the region.
As a result, they will play all their European home games in Moscow’s Lokomotiv stadium.
In the Europa qualifier against AZ Alkmaar, Anzhi’s players and supporters were mocked and racially abused by Ultras from rival Moscow teams.
This wasn’t entirely surprising. Anzhi’s recent rise has rattled much of the footballing establishment in Russia.
Kerimov’s billions have seen the Dagastani club challenging the old order and they are feared and resented as a result.
Their Europa League campaign begins this Thursday, away to Udinese. It will signify a new era and show how far Anzhi have risen.
Most importantly, Suleiman Kerimov has brought dignity, pride, honour and hope back to his war-torn homeland.
As he himself proclaims;
“People have something to be proud of. It means they can see something positive there and they gain the motivation to work. The football club stands out against all the negative news. People are starting to hope for the better. Such stars don’t play everywhere, and, look, they’re in Makhachkala.”