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.
As anyone with even a passing interest in Russian football can tell you, Anzhi are the new money, the new kids on the Premier League block looking to use their vast resources to ensure domestic success and then push on into Europe. As far as the ownership is concerned, Anzhi are to be the team to make Dagestan not just a name on the footballing map, but the very centre of it. Every transfer window the English tabloids take great delight in linking players with extortionate moves to Makhachkala, and their reputation grows with each big money signing.
Although Anzhi did exist before Suleyman Kerimov took charge, they are not one of Russia’s oldest clubs, the likes of a Spartak or Zenit who can trace their foundations back to the early days of Bolshevik rule. Instead, as their club badge would suggest, Anzhi came into being only in 1991, the latest team to emerge from Makhachkala after the local Dinamo dropped rapidly down the leagues.
Anzhi would made a blistering start to life as a fully-fledged football club, winning their Second Division group in 1993 but being denied promotion by one of a number of organisational reshuffles of the footballing pyramid. It did not hold them bad for long – just three years later Anzhi missed out on a century of league goals by a single strike, romping to the title and combining a great season with an unlikely run to the last eight of the Russian Cup, knocking out reigning Premier League champions Alania Vladikavkaz before losing to Dinamo in Moscow.
Under the guidance of Eduard Malofeev the side consolidated their place in the First Division, before the arrival of Gadzhi Gadzhiev – a legend at the club who has taken the reins on three separate occasions – pushed Anzhi to new heights. His first season in charged combined another impressive cup run with the league title, fending off challenges from Fakel Voronezh, Sokol Saratov and Torpedo-ZiL Moscow to clinch the First Division crown. That meant top flight football in Makhachkala, and the progress did not stop there as Gadzhiev led the side to 4th place and a shot at European football.
That adventure ended at the first hurdle as Rangers won 1-0 on neutral territory in Warsaw, such was their concern about visiting one of Russia’s most volatile regions, and the following season their hero departed after managing just 13th place and narrow survival. A temporary caretaker and two Ukrainian managers tried to stop the slide the following season, but Anzhi finished three points from safety and slipped back into the First Division.
A Cup semi-final came in 2003, but it was accompanied by an underwhelming 6th in the second tier, and for six years it would be their highest finish, the club struggling to adapt to life outside of the top flight and at times slipping dangerously close to the relegation trapdoor – 15th place in 2006 giving the fans in Makhachkala plenty to worry about.
If instability is a word often used to describe the political, religious and ethnic situation in Dagestan, then this period of Anzhi’s history shows a remarkable parallel. From relegation in 2002 to promotion under Omar Tetradze seven years later, the Makhachkala side worked their way through no fewer than five permanent managers and three different caretakers – Tetradze’s four years at the helm remains a record for a club who have seen 23 changes in the dugout in just over two decades. Success at every level is expected immediately, and with modern expectations so much higher as a result of their vast wealth, that is a figure that can only be expected to grow over the coming years.
The reason for the footballing revolution at Anzhi is, of course, the new ownership of Suleyman Kerimov. The Dagestani billionaire was handed the reins of the club by the region’s president in exchange for the promise of investment, with his financial injections reaching beyond the playing squad. Kerimov’s vision includes state-of-the-art playing and training facilities, a leading youth academy, and infrastructural improvements in his native Dagestan, which remains a relatively poor region of Russia as result of corruption, clan rivalry and the monopoly of a few individuals over the lucrative oil business.
Kerimov took charge in January 2011, and within weeks made his mark by bringing legendary Brazilian full back Roberto Carlos to the club. By the end of the transfer window his fellow countryman Jucilei had arrived from Corinthians, and Mbark Boussoufa signed from Anderlecht. Later in the year they added to their squad with Hungarian winger Balazs Dzsudzsak, Moroccan international Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez, and Russia star Yuri Zhirkov, who joined in a controversial move from Chelsea. An impressive list, but the big move was yet to be made.
On 23rd August 2011, a deal was finally concluded which saw Samuel Eto’o, one of world football’s finest strikers, join from Inter Milan in a deal which would make him one of the world’s highest paid players. His was the deal which placed Anzhi on the footballing radar, and which truly announced their arrival as a major player in the Russian game. Whether Eto’o can ever achieve the legendary status afforded to Ibrahim Gasanbekov – the club’s all-time leading goalscorer tragically killed in a car crash at just 29 who has had his number 11 shirt retired as a mark of respect – remains to be seen, but finishing as the club’s top scorer after just two thirds of a season set him off to a good start.
Anzhi finished 5th after a tumultuous transitional season for the Dagestan side, replacing Gadzhiev with Yuri Krasnozhan over the winter, only for the new manager to leave without playing a competitive game. Filling the gap was Dutchman and former Russia boss Guus Hiddink, with a remit to challenge at the top and regenerate Dagestan with Anzhi as the vehicle. With Hiddink’s contract including a director’s role under retirement, ensuring his long-term participation in the project, he has been signed up for the long haul, and should provide some stability to an unpredictable club.
Although controversy surrounds Anzhi’s continuing fight to play European ties at home rather than in Moscow, Russia’s newest ‘big’ club should be a permanent fixture at the top end of the table as long as Kerimov stays involved. The owner’s dream lies beyond that of a successful football club, and although Anzhi are often citicised for the way they throw their money around, if the ends are reached then the means will be entirely justified. Anzhi have the potential to be one of the few football clubs to make a social difference to the local population, and for that alone, Kerimov’s vision is to be admired.