On the evening of 6th August, shockwaves were sent through the Russian football world. In a press conference scheduled late into the Moscow night, club director Konstantin Remchukov revealed that the club would be dramatically slashing the club’s playing budgets, resulting in the departure of several high-profile players. In essence, the Anzhi dream was over.
The warnings signs were obvious. First came Guus Hiddink’s sudden departure. Secondly, the signing of Igor Denisov, who within weeks – and before playing a competitive game for the club – fell out with senior players and appeared to be on the brink of tearing up his contract. Then came the news that owner Suleyman Kerimov had lost around half a billion dollars in a single day in share values when his Uralkali potash company pulled out of a venture in Belarus.
Four games into the new season, and with just two points to their name, Anzhi appear to be in crisis. Defeats to Dinamo and in-form Rostov, coupled with draws against Krylya Sovetov and Lokomotiv have left the billionaire club comfortably adrift of the early pace-setters and with even the most optimistic of fans placing title ambitions under heavy doubt. Hiddink’s replacement in the dugout, former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen, arrived with just a few months of managerial experience under his belt, and looks set to depart with even less.
As soon as Remchukov confirmed the rumours, speculation began to mount. Lacina Traore would go to Zenit, the Russian international quartet of Gabulov, Zhirkov, Denisov and Kokorin to Dinamo. Eto’o had walked out on the club, Meulensteen had been sacked, the whole playing staff was up for sale – in truth, nobody actually knew.
What is known is that there will be departures. On a revised budget of $50-70m, the club will be unable to keep the likes of Eto’o – despite the public love affair with the Dagestani fans – Willian – who has already made noises about playing in a bigger European league – and Lassana Diarra. Denisov, who has now fallen out with two clubs over money, and Kokorin, who left his own boyhood club for Kerimov’s riches, are unlikely to stay much longer.
In response to the rumours, the club have come out swinging. It was made abundantly clear that there will be no squad-wide firesale, that players will be sold according to their true values, and that there is no rush to complete deals. Part of the reasoning given behind the decision was the frustration of Kerimov with the club’s failure to buy success, prompting a new long-term strategy. To start from scratch is not part of those plans.
Anzhi’s board have also been keen to stress that the new budgets will not see them become of the league’s paupers. German Tkachev told the press after pointing out the new budget would keep Anzhi in the top half of the RPL money league: “We’re still sure we can obtain strong results with this amount of money in the short term. What’s most important is that Kerimov stays with the club.”
The boss then, has not lost interest in Anzhi or in his project. What he has lost interest in is the direction, the policy of buying big names and hoping they fit together on the field. In all likelihood, Kerimov has found himself frustrated at how far the current side is from his original vision. Had the deviation brought success, it would have been tolerated. Instead, with failure all too obvious, changes could be swept in.
Suleyman Kerimov, although often thrown in with the likes of the Middle Eastern sheikhs at Manchester City and PSG and Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, is not a typical billionaire owner. Far from a egoist looking for a vanity project, Kerimov is a Dagestani local, a hometown boy done good who, according to his team , has a genuine concern for the development of Dagestan. While many owners speak of infrastructural growth, developing young talents and giving back to the community, there is a sense with the reclusive and private Kerimov that there is truth behind the spin.
The first signs beyond the obvious development of a new Anzhi academy and improvements to the stadium, was the club’s dealings with Dagdizel Kaspiysk. With the fellow Dagestanis facing extinction, they were brought into the Anzhi fold as a farm club on the condition that they relocated to Derbent – the second city in Dagestan – spreading the parent club’s net and at the same time increasing the opportunities for locals to benefit from the sport.
This local-first policy looks to be the basis on which the ‘new Anzhi’ will be built, and whilst hope of instant success has been sacrificed, it is a policy which appears to have gone down well with supporters. Leader of primary fans’ group the Wild Division, Ramazan Gaziev, tweeted that Anzhi ‘were, are, and always will be,’ and stated that nothing could kill his love for the club, promising to back them even if relegated to the amateur ranks. Not all fans share his commitment, but many appreciate the situation they find themselves in and are intrigued by the next step.
The next step could well be the ‘project’ that was originally intended, or at the very least the project which every new owner of a football club pledges to the fans. A community club reliant on its loyal following, focusing on local talent to make it to the top of their field. For Anzhi, a club from one of Russia’s poorest regions, it is a long journey, but one which they may now start in earnest.
They have started with the return of manager Gadzhi Gadzhiev, a local hero in Makhachkala returning for his fifth spell in charge of the club. Born in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt and the leader of Anzhi in their finest hour, there are plenty in the stands who feel Gadzhiev was unfairly treated when ousted in favour of first Yuri Krasnozhan and then Guus Hiddink. he is a man who knows the club, knows the area, and knows how to manage in the Russian top flight.
The next key step in Anzhi’s dramatic image change is to continue with a policy they had previously made a great deal of in the media – the relocation to Dagestan. Much has been made of the team training over 1,000 miles away in Moscow and only flying in for home games, and there have been questions aplenty as to how far a team of international millionaires living halfway across the country could possibly represent a city such as Dagestan. The area continues to struggle with Islamic extremism, intrinsically linked as it is to Chechnya and Ingushetia, and with ethnic tensions among its diverse population. UEFA have banned the team hosting European matches anywhere in the North Caucasus, and if the players themselves are unwilling to base themselves there, it is difficult to see that changing.
However, as the make-up of the club changes and Kerimov’s project comes to light, an increased Dagestani and Caucasian presence would certainly ease the move. And, if top coaches are retained and the state-of-the-art academy maintained, the lack of pricey foreign stars would certainly ease their transition to the first XI. As news of Anzhi’s apparent implosion broke, one Twitter status cruelly joked in the style of a news bulletin, that ‘Anzhi are interested in Dagdizel player Kadimov and are prepared to pay 30,000 roubles (£600) for him.’ While 24-year-old forward Tofik may object to being the butt of such a joke, he is precisely the kind of player Anzhi should now be looking to find at a young age, develop through their academy, expose at Dagdziel and then bring into the first team fold.
For an example of how such a system might work, Anzhi have only to cast their eyes as far as Vladikavkaz, where the recently relegated Ossetians can proudly point to a number of local lads making the first team. Captain Taras Tsarikaev, goalkeeper Dmitri Khomich, former Anzhi purchase Georgi Gabulov, full back Zaurbek Pliev – all are representing the club’s own city, while Arsen Khubulov has recently been sold to top flight Kuban. On the bench and in the reserves, Vladikavkaz and the surrounding area is well represented, and that is now the aim for Anzhi and their fans.
Of course, Alania have been relegated, and their homegrown policy’s limits were brutally exposed in the top flight last season. The difference between the two clubs is of course Kerimov – while cutting back the budget, he has by no means hung Anzhi out to dry. Anzhi retain the backing to develop truly top class facilities and the ability to attract a good standard of ‘outsider’ in to the team – even football outsiders cannot expect a club to survive solely with locals.
Will Anzhi ever win the Russian title with a predominantly Dagestani squad, or even a Dagestani manager? It seems highly unlikely. However, to produce a team of similar composition and remain competitive on a national level would be a commendable achievement given the region’s complete lack of footballing prowess previously.
Anzhi’s budget cut and impending sale of international stars may well signal the end of the club in the international news pages and at the top of the league table. It may even result in relegation, although such pessimism seems excessive. However, the new priorities put in place by Kerimov, Remchukov, Tkachev and their team should not be viewed in the wholly negative light currently being shed on them.
In almost all situations, a focus on youth, local talent and placing the club at the heart of the community, developing the local area as well as the trophy cabinet, would be lauded by the wider footballing world. That it has taken two years of lavish spending, ego clashes and crude behaviour is unfortunate, but Kerimov seems keen to put that in the past. With more modest and yet more important aims, the true Anzhi project could well just be beginning. With Gadzhiev at the helm and a squad soon to be led by those who truly wish to stay, Anzhi will comfortably survive this season. Whilst the feelgood factor of big signings provided escapism for Makhachkala’s poverty-stricken natives, the new policies may see the people of Dagestani finally start to benefit from their billionaire benefactor’s involvement.