This is part of a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
The southernmost regions of Russia, as anybody with a vague knowledge of the area will know, is not a particularly safe place compared to the relative luxury enjoyed in the likes of Moscow and St Petersburg. Indeed, anybody from the UK venturing too far into the Caucasus mountain range will find their travel insurance null and void, based on Foreign and Commonwealth Office guidelines specifically advising against travel in the region.
In many ways however, life for the outsider in the ‘Wild South,’ as some have rather flippantly christened it, is no more difficult than for the resident population. After the devastation caused by the two Chechen wars – the result of which has seen the Republic fall under personal control of the controversial and uncompromising Ramzan Kadyrov – and seemingly constant threat of insurgency, Russian security in the region is tight, and anyone of Caucasian appearance faces a tough time in the country’s traditional centres of power. Combined with high rates of unemployment and one of the lowest average wages in Europe, the peoples of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia to name but three have far more on their plates than the mountain bandits on every corner dreamed up by over-romantic travellers.
The sudden arrival of infinite riches to Anzhi Makhachkala then, evoked a multitude of emotions in impoverished Dagestan. On the one hand, the chance to see their own team sign world class players and challenge not only in Russia competition, but on a European scale, was unexpected and beyond the wildest dreams of many local citizens. On the contrary, everything seemed so detached – Anzhi’s players live and train thousands of miles away on the outskirts of Moscow and enjoy seven-figure salaries, whilst some of the foreign imports had never even heard of Makhachkala before signing their contracts, let alone have any real interest in the region. As far as distances between teams and fans, Suleyman Kerimov’s wealth instantly created one of the greatest gulfs in world football.
The prolific investor did not take long to realise this, and as a Dagestani local himself – Kerimov was born in the historic city of Derbent – he unveiled his plan for the development of the entire area. Anzhi would be the focal point of his investment, but only as one part of a pledge to encourage development of infrastructure, sporting and otherwise, across the region. Whilst there have been questions asked about priorities and the exact details of his plans, there are few doubts that Kerimov is faithful to his word.
For the other football clubs in Dagestan, Anzhi’s rise to prominence has had both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, the influx of talent in Makhachkala has deepened the pool of players available for loan from the Premier League side’s development squad, and generated a new interest in the sport within Dagestan. On the other, that interest is almost exclusively in Anzhi, with few giving a second thought to their local football club. Dagdizel Kaspiysk, a small club from the Caspian naval port indicated in its name, were just one of the sides to suffer.
That is not to say that Dagdizel were drawing in large crowds and winning tournaments before Anzhi came along – quite the opposite. Founded in 1949 as Sudostroitel (Ship builder) – Kaspiysk is the home of Russia’s ekranoplan fleet amongst other vessels – they went through as many name changes as they entered all-Union competitions in the Soviet era, making just four appearances at national level at wide intervals – back-to-back seasons in 1968 and 69 bookmarked by their 1949 debut and the final year of Soviet football in 1991. For the remainder of their Soviet existence, the role of Kaspiysk’s representatives, whether as Sudostroitel, Trud, Torpedo or Kaspiy, was limited to performance on a more regional level, preliminary Russian competition their greatest achievement under the hammer and sickle.
The Russian chapter of Dagdizel’s history did not get off to a good start, mediocre performances in low level performances leading to the almost inevitable funding shortage and cessation of operations in 1995. For many Russian sides in the lower leagues, the death and rebirth of a club is almost a rite of passage, such is its frequency, often taking place within a year of the original liquidation. In Dagdizel’s case, however, there would be no professional football team in Kaspiysk for almost a decade.
It was 2003 when the Dagdizel name was finally revived, the club placed at the bottom of the ladder in the amateur football league. Three seasons of toil saw the coastal club make steady improvements each year, in at the end of the 2005 season, Dagdizel’s application to rejoin the professional ranks was accepted, opening the way for them to participate in the southern branch of the Second Division in 2006.
They did just that, but not for long – despite a 13th place finish steering them clear of relegation according to the league table, league officials detected financial irregularities which saw Dagdizel breach the terms of their professional licence, condemning them to another year in the amateur ranks. A year in purgatory did not reduce the standard of Dagdizel’s play as they earned promotion at the first tie of asking, and the following year manager Magomed-Rasul Akhmedov guided the team to 8th in their Second DIvision group, their highest placing since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Two years on, and Akhmedov had yet to match his feat, steering the club to a less comfortable safety in both subsequent seasons. Despite the improvements made since the revival in 2003, Dagdizel were once again blighted by a lack of funds, with the club hovering on the edge of existence once again.
It was then that the club’s leadership turned to Kerimov with cap in hand, hoping to arrange some form of deal which would see Dagdizel survive as part of Anzhi’s extended family. Remembering his own promise to spread his wealth across the vast Dagestani territory, Dagdizel entered the Anzhi administration as an official farm club – a system more common in Russia’s closed league sports, ice hockey the prime example – with the parent making an official announcement in August 2012.
By this time however, Anzhi’s influence on Dagdizel was already clear. In May of the previous year, Akhmedov made way for Emin Agaev, the 2000 Azerbaijani Footballer of the Year whose previous work had been as a coach and scout for Anzhi. In much bigger news, August 2011 saw the club move its home games to the Yunost stadium in Derbent, some 70 miles further down the Caspian coastline. Whilst the fans did not take too kindly to their club being uprooted, Kerimov’s motivation for a professional football club in Derbent is obvious.
Firstly, the very name carries greater gravity for outsiders – Derbent is the second most important in Dagestan behind Makhachkala, whilst some would argue it holds a greater historical and cultural significance. Derbent’s population is also 20% greater than that of Kaspiysk’s allowing the Anzhi supremo to try and reach a greater number of people with his sporting philanthropy.Finally, by entrusting Dagdizel to Derbent, Kerimov is showing the watching world that he is serious about his plans to make not just Anzhi, but Dagestan, a sporting power to be reckoned with. Dagdizel now play an official and important role as farm club, providing youngsters with the perfect opportunities to gain competitive match experience outside of the Premier League’s youth/reserve league combination.
For now, the Kaspiysk name remains, as does the Dagdizel title which advertises a factory in their previous home city. However, whilst the club may be frowned upon in the short time for its sudden upheaval, Dagdizel’s continued survival and participation in Dagestan’s long-term regeneration is of far greater importance. As an individual club it is unlikely that they will achieve anything of note. However, as part of the Anzhi family, they have every chance of doing just that.