With just a single week to go before the closure of the winter transfer window, big-spending Anzhi Makhachkala appointed legendary Dutchman Guus Hiddink as their third manager of the season. With limited time but almost infinite resources, the new man in the Dagestani hotseat was understandably hurried in his transfer dealings, earning media attention in the English press for his pursuit and capture of former Blackburn captain Christopher Samba for a fee of £8-12m, depending on which sources you choose to believe. The club’s domestic scouting network also showed off its credentials with the signing of Ural Ekaterinburg starlet Oleg Shatov, the attacking midfielder one of the most promising talents in the First Division before being snapped up by Suleyman Kerimov’s club.
There were two other arrivals at the club which came together to provide an intriguing tale of family history – firstly, Vladimir Gabulov, the goalkeeper with seven caps for the Russian national team, returned to Anzhi from an unlikely loan spell at CSKA covering for the injured Igor Akinfeev. However, the rather less expected arrival came in the form of his younger brother, Alania Vladikavkaz captain and star midfielder Georgy Gabulov signed by Hiddink for a fee rumoured to be around £4.5m – a huge amount for a player in the First Division. The transfer unites the two brothers for the first time in their professional career – with goalkeeper Vladimir five years older than his playmaking brother, even their youth years were spent apart. Although Georgy will have to fight hard for a place in an Anzhi midfield packed with expensive foreign imports, the hope is that the two will eventually form the spine of a title-winning Anzhi side, with appearances for the national side as a pair a distinct possibility.
The story of both brothers begins in the North Ossetian town of Mozdok, a town of around 40,000 inhabitants on the northern bank of the Terek River. One of the major settlements in the area, dating back as far as the middle of the 18th century, Mozdok was the northern outpost on the Georgain Military Road until the establishment of Vladikavkaz, some 40 miles to the south, in 1784. Its history is inseperable from military affairs – Mozdok was one of the many southern towns to be occupied by the invading Germans in the summer offensive of 1942, only be reclaimed by the Red Army as they pushed the invaders back in the aftermath of the infamous Battle of Stalingrad.
In recent years, Mozdok is most famous for its role as the main Russian military base in both of the Chechen wars, being used as a command centre for ground and air forces. Despite its location, less than 10% of the town’s population are ethnic Ossetians, with Russians comprising over half of the inhabitants thanks to a strong military presence, and events during a 1992 conflict between Ossetia and neighbouring Ingushetia causing the land route to regional capital Vladikavkaz to become almost impassable. Since the start of the Second Chechen War in 1999, the Mozdok base has been the target of a number of suicide bomb attacks, the most notable of which saw the destruction of an entire military hospital and the loss of at least 50 lives in August 2003.
Remarkably, the elder Gabulov’s footballing career took off in Mozdok just as the second war was launched. Despite the chaos in the area, threats from insurgents and a huge influx of military personnel, Vladimir was plucked from school to play for FC Mozdok, becoming first choice goalkeeper for the Second Division side at the age of just 16. It was here he was noticed by his mentor Valeri Gazzaev, who removed the teenage goalkeeper from Ossetian obscurity by signing him for his Dinamo Moscow team. Still a teenager, Gabulov played 11 games in his first season in Moscow, before the departure of Gazzaev to CSKA saw the young shot stopper head closer to home and claim the first team position for Alania Vladikavkaz.
However, it took just two years for Gazzaev to come after his goalkeeping protege again, this time signing Vladimir for his CSKA side who would go on to win the UEFA Cup in 2005. Competition from Igor Akinfeev saw him play just three league games over two years, and a transfer to Kuban and loan move to Amkar followed before he found himself back at Dinamo, where he established himself as number one, conceding on average just a goal a game and earning a call-up to the national side before Anzhi swooped for him last year.
Whilst his older brother was noticed playing his football surrounded by violence and war, brother Georgy’s professional career took an entirely different route. Five years younger than his goalkeeping brother, the second Gabulov was just six years old at the outbreak of the first war and 12 at the second, and although it is unknown as to how much the conflicts affected his childhood, he will still have been acutely aware of the situation.
Perhaps wisely given the circumstances, Georgy chose to take the opportunity offered to him by Lokomotiv Moscow to enter their youth ranks, and it was for their second string, competing as Lokomotiv-2 Moscow in the regional leagues, that he made his debut in midfield in 2006. With opportunities hard to come by in a strong Lokomotiv side, Georgy followed in his brother’s footsteps by making the trip south to Alania, initially on loan, in 2008. Lokomotiv agreed to make the deal permanent, and Gabulov soon began to flourish in his native region, quickly becoming the Vladikavkaz side’s creative outlet in midfield and a bright spark in a disappointing 2010 season which saw the club relegated from the Premier League, captaining the side at just 21 years of age and making appearances for Russia’s under-21 side at the same time.
This winter, Anzhi became the beneficiaries of the younger Gabulov’s obvious talent, reuniting the two brothers in Makhachkala where they will attempt to qualify for Europe and then push on in future seasons for title success. With the Berezutskiy brothers at CSKA Moscow passing the peak of their careers, the Gabulovs will undoubtedly take their place as the pre-eminent family double act in the Russian league, with Vladimir as the last line of defence and Georgy feeding the likes of Samuel Eto’o up front. Coming from such troubled beginnings in Mozdok, most would have been surprised if just one of them had made it to the national team – if both of them are capped, it will be nothing short of a miracle given the circumstances. Anzhi have been criticised in some circles for their relentless pursuit of foreign talent, however in the Gabulovs they have found a pair of players who have more knowledge than most of what it means to overcome adversity, and their combination of obvious talent and fierce determination could play a vital part as the Dagestani project moves into its next phase.