From The Archive - The Rapid Rise and Fall of Anzhi Makhachkala

This article originally appeared on the Penalty Magazine website.

The creation of a former Dinamo Makhachkala, Magomed-Sultan Magomedov in 1991, the biggest achievement FC Anzhi could boast until 2011 was the Russian Cup final in 2001, a game they lost on penalties to one of the country’s most renowned sides, Lokomotiv Moscow. The following season they were relegated from Russian Premier League into the First Division, where they stayed for a further seven seasons before making their return to the Premier League.

Nearly a decade after their cup-final defeat against Lokomotiv, a man, who was considered among the most successful businessmen in Russia, took over the club with one simple aim - creating a future littered with silverware. After rumoured attempts to takeover Italian sides AS Roma and FC Bari, as well as Russian side Torpedo Moscow had failed, Suleyman Kerimov, switched his attention to his native region, who were more than happy to accept their hometown hero as the new owner. The Dagestan local authorities handed over all 100 per cent of Anzhi’s shares to him for free under the proviso of providing the club with financial support and helping the growth of football in the region.

Kerimov’s investment was immediate, bringing the attention of the wider footballing when in February 2011 it was announced that a World Cup winner will be brought into to provide a wealth of experience to the fledgling club. Roberto Carlos, who made his name as a member of the Galactico’s at Real Madrid where he went on to make 370 appearances and scored a number of eye-catching goals had made the decision to continue his career in Russia. Then 37, Carlos became the highest-paid player in the Russian Premier League, with his two and a half year deal worth a reported €10 million. The Winter transfer season also saw the arrival of Corinthian’s midfielder Jucilei da Silva and Moroccan international and former Chelsea youth player Mbark Boussoufa from Belgian side Anderlecht for €10 million and €8 million fees respectively. Although the supporters were happy with new arrivals, the best signings were yet to come.

As the summer window approached new high profile signs were announced. Balazs Dzsudzsak, who had garnered the attention of many big clubs around the world due to his displays on the left wing for PSV Eindhoven signed for an undisclosed fee. They also signed Russian international Yuri Zhirkov, much to the anger of Russian supporters who saw his move from the Chelsea bench to the Makhachkala starting team as an act of treachery. In the fans’ eyes the defender was turning his back on the opportunity to play in the Motherland to pick up a pay-check in the Caucasus Republic.

Again fans appeared excited for the club’s future with their new signings but in the end of August, Kerimov sprung his greatest surprise. The media and fans were both left shocked as a personal jet with Samuel Eto’o on board landed in Makhachkala, with the Cameroonian arriving not merely to provide the region media attention, but to play for Anzhi. Nobody could’ve predicted that one day a modest team from the Republic of Dagestan would be able to invite the world’s top stars to their home on the Caspian Sea. Eto’o did not come cheaply was given the highest salary in world football, around €21 million a year. Quite unbelievably, Makhachkala had turned into Qatari-esque province on the Russian mainland.

Now boasting a band of well-known players, Anzhi now needed someone on the touchline that had a strong enough reputation to keep control over their famous newcomer’s egos. The chosen man was Guus Hiddink, a well-respected manager around the world for his time at in charge of PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid and widely adored for the great work he had done with the Russian national team. Continuing the trend of high money signings he became the highest-paid manager on the planet with his annual income of around €10 million a year.

With the help of Kerimov, Anzhi looked set to rewrite its own history – and that of Dagestan – however due to the delicate political situation in their region, for training they were based in Moscow. With Dagestan renowned for being one of the most dangerous places in Europe, it was decided too unsafe for the players to stay there for a considerable length of time. The team flew to Makhachkala to play home games and after their match they would return to the capital where the players lived in security. They practiced in a settlement named Kratovo, where local side FC Saturn conducted training sessions before the club was disbanded due huge debts. With Saturn folding due to financial mismanagement, Anzhi leased their facilities until their own ones in Makhachkala could be improved.

Although the players did not live in the local are, their fans were still fiercely passionate about the club, with each home game being full. The atmosphere grew even ferocious when the reconstruction works ended and a modernized stadium, the Anzhi Arena, was opened. The arena was important to the future success of the club as their previous home ground, Dynamo Stadium not meeting UEFA Stadium regulations and so was unable to receive European matches. The opening of the now regulation stadium was a big event with Russian and foreign stars attending the ceremony including Jean-Claude van Damme who was invited as a special guest of Kerimov and a mini concert from Cher.

With their future now in their hands, Anzhi attempted to challenge Russian monopoly consisting of the big Moscow clubs and Zenit. In 2012-13 season they managed it, finishing in third and making a statement that they had arrived. To help them continue their ascension up the table the midfield was strengthened with the signings of Lassana Diarra from Real Madrid and Willian from Shakhtar Donetsk. That season they also reached their second Russian Cup final but again it finished in defeat – this time to CSKA Moscow as well as making their first appearance on the European stage as they made it to the Europa League playoffs where Newcastle United ended their campaign in the second knockout round.

After the success of the season the team looked to extend the contracts of those that made it possible. Manager Guus Hiddink accepted to prolong his stay at the club, but Roberto Carlos who by that time had seen the role of joint head coach added to his already expansive resume decided to move on to try his hand as a manager, heading to Turkey to manage Sivasspor. Reports from the time point the Brazilian’s departure being linked to alleged frequent arguments between Carlos and the team’s star striker, Samuel Eto’o, over the Cameroonian’s role at the club. For Eto’o, a place in the starting line-up was not enough; as he was seen as the team’s best player and the best chance Anzhi had at reaching real success, he wanted to have more power and preside over the day-to-day running of the club, something fiercely opposed by Carlos.

A regular on the front and back pages of newspapers in Russia due to this celebrity status, he is remembered fondly by Anzhi fans, winning them over via his on the pitch ability and his likable persona off the pitch - he famously provided a secretary at the club with a brand new flat in downtown Makhachkala. With their talismanic striker content at the club and his role within the team the following season looked bright.

Although all signs pointed to continued success in the 2013/14 season, a series of events curtailed any chance of that, and started the decline of the club almost as quickly as they had risen. This year was arguably the most eventful time for Anzhi under Suleyman Kerimov. It started off well for the side as they signed two Russian internationals. Igor Denisov, a player with undoubted talent but a history of issues of problems with those in charge of him had left Zenit after a falling out with the club’s hierarchy after they brought in Hulk and Alex Witsel and he was not given a contract to match theirs. The second signing saw Anzhi looking to the future as they bought Alexander Kokorin from Dynamo Moscow, considered by many to be one of the most prodigious young forwards in Russia.

Spending a combined fee of €34 million on the pair, the deal highlighted Anzhi’s desire to become a staying power in the league. There is a limit on the number of foreign players a Russian championship side can play so bringing in domestic talent signified another step in the right decision by the hierarchy. However, by the end of the summer, the two, along with their compatriot Zhirkov, found themselves at Arena Khimki playing for Dynamo Moscow. Although costing €19 million Kokorin failed to make a single appearance for the club.

Where Anzhi’s previous transfer history had bought them positive media reactions, the selling of the Russian triumvirate, one of the most bizarre series of transfers in Russian football history, they received confused reactions from media and fans alike. The reason given that after three years Kerimov wanted to change the way the club was ran, with a focus on talent from the Republic of Dagestan, replacing the recent tactic of expensive stars.

The radical move was sudden and brutal –as almost all major stars were sold in the space of a single season. Due to the speed in which everything happened a number of hypothesis were developed on the real reasons for Kerimov to abandon his original plans to create the mightiest and the starriest club in Russia. Some said his health had rapidly declined and so would be unable to run the club for much longer. Others assumed that he decided to cut down on his investment as he was disappointed that the team had not yet won any silverware despite spending a fortune. The latter theory becomes more believable when news broke of Kerimov’s personal fortune had declined.

With every team member available for transfer, the big money buys were out of the club almost as quickly as they were brought in. Although Anzhi had been derided by their rivals for their quick rise to dominance, when all their players were put up for sale they capitalised. In addition to the three Russians, Dynamo Moscow recruited Christopher Samba, Vladimir Glabulov and Aleksei Ioniv. Lassana Diarra, Mbark Boussoufa and Arseniy Logashov joined Lokomotiv Moscow, Joao Carlos moved to Spartak Moscow and Oleg Shatov made his way to Zenit St Petersburg. Even the face of Anzhi’s spending was not safe as Samuel Eto’o was reunited with his former Intern Milan boss José Mourinho at Chelsea, with recent Anzhi signing Willian joining him soon after. Willian was evidence of the sudden change of plan as he had only been at the club a total of five months and played just 11 times for the club.

The mastermind of Anzhi’s recent success, Guus Hiddink soon departed, considered another cost saving measure by the fans. René Meulensteen, Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United until the Scotsman’s retirement in 2013 and who had only recently been named Hiddink’s assistant, was chosen to be the man in charge. However his reign was not a long one – lasting just 16 days. He was replaced by Gadzhi Gadzhiyev, who had managed the club before Kerimov had brought the club.

Negativity surrounded the side, but a bad season can usually be saved by a cup run and with Anzhi appearing in the Europa League, there was an opportunity for the fans to still get a happy ending. If there was to be a happy ending it would not occur in their home ground as UEFA forbade them to play their Europa League home games in Makhachkala, declaring that the situation in Dagestan was too dangerous for the international fixtures to be held, meaning Anzhi had to play their opponents in Moscow. This move angered fans of the numerous Moscow clubs, whose stadiums were being used by a Caucasian team and the political unrest culminated in extreme hostility for the club’s supporters. They progressed to the Europa League playoffs before being defeated by AZ Alkmaar. Losing their star players, an uneventful European campaign and finally, finishing bottom of the Russian Premier League, Anzhi’s demise took just one season. In just three short years they had gone from one of the world’s biggest spending clubs to Russia’s second tier.

Although they spent just one season in the second league, there return to the Russian Premier League showed how the club had changed since his first promotion. There were no star players brought in and their manager was journeyman of the Russian League. With the chance of relegation being a likely outcome, Anzhi’s moment in the sun is now confined to the history books. Suleyman Kerimov still owns the club and it’s unlikely he’ll be bought out in the near future. During the side’s three years of dominance his expenditure amounted to €450 million, and with him choosing to rarely do interviews, it is only him that knows whether it was worth it. For the supporters of Anzhi, who up to that point had not really had much to cheer about, it was a fleeting moment in the limelight. For the rest of the world, it remains one of the most bizarre few seasons in football history and a remains a reminder of the negative side of an influx in money to a club.