Two weeks ago, it was one of the few scoreless draws in this season’s Europa League round of opening 24 games — a contest between Moldavian minnow Sheriff and Anzhi Makhachkala of Russia.
Anzhi Makhachkala were the heavy favorite and appeared the likeliest to score a goal throughout the opening hour, but they were unable to break down the plucky side from Tiraspol. Their inability to carve open the hosts weakened Anzhi, as Sheriff came the closest to recording a shock win at home. Such was the result for Anzhi that it continued a streak that is currently one of the worst in all of Europe, twelve matches without a single win to start their 2013-14 season in all competitions.
Anzhi Makhachkala’s place is rooted at the bottom of the Russian Premier League. Dead last place. Better than no one, not even ultra minnow Terk Grozny.
It is a set of fragility that would frustrate any club, no matter their stature. But for Anzhi of the Dagestan Republic captain Makhachkala, it is a run of form at the beginning of a season that the players, supporters, and owner should have expected. A run of form that is totally in the opposite direction of what the club aspired to be less than 32 months ago.
Russian billionaire investor Suleyman Kerimov wanted to make his modest hometown team not just as big as the Moscow giants of CSKA, Spartak, and Lokomotiv or Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia, but to be as luminous as western Europe’s elite clubs. And with those high ambitions, Kerimov bought the club in January 2011, with it being later revealed that the President of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, gave him 100% stake of the club.
“The football team is just a part of a bigger project,” said Anzhi chief executive German Chistyakov. “There will be new stadia, new infrastructure for the club, a new training ground, an academy for the kids. It will be a social lift for Dagestan. All these projects will change the lives of people in this region.”
At the forefont of changing people’s lives in Dagestan though would be a team stacked full of stars that would rival the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Manchester United. And Kerimov was determined to do that.
Almost a month taking over the club, Kermiov convinced the legendary Roberto Carlos to end his days with Anzhi instead of back home in the Brasileiro with Corinthians. The big checks from the billionaire continued with another Brazilian Juicei, followed by Anderlecht’s Moroccan playmaker Mbark Boussoufa. For a first transfer window as the owner, Kerimov made his intent be known, and surely displayed signs of more to come. And indeed, a blockbuster was afoot.
The summer lead to the signings of the once popular Chelsea left back Yuri Zhrikov for a very cheap fee of £13.2 million, in comparison to Hungarian talented winger Balazs Dzsudzsak arriving from PSV for £14 million. Then, the biggest splash was to be made, when Kermiov somehow became the only person on the planet who thought a still quality but aging Samuel Eto’o was worth more than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and everybody else in the history of club football, in terms of salary.
Kermiov kindly filled Inter Milan’s pockets for £28million to get the services of Eto’o, and then convinced him of the wise move of leaving a Serie A giant to an emerging Russian club by giving the Cameroon legend £20.5 million a year in wages.
The money Kerimov spent on a player in decline like Eto’o was the first ominous signs of Anzhi’s rapid decline. But for Kerimov, it drove the thirst for more big names, especially after the sacking of Gadzhi Gadzhiyev, which resulted in the wild scene of Roberto Carlos becoming a caretaker manager.
Guus Hiddink needed something to return him back to the level of elite coaches after his massive disappointment in failing to lead Russia to the 2010 World Cup and a pedestrian at best tenure with Turkey. He accepted the offer to replace Carlos, who went on to retire into the Anzhi’s backroom staff, for this new developing project in February 2012. Hiddink saw the alacrity that Kerimov had that would make his time at Anzhi hopefully a fulfilling one. His arrival lead to a youth academy being developed for the club and the potential to not only rely on just big foreign names to build the foundation of Anzhi.
But Kerimov was still driven to bring in more notable veterans. Hiddink’s leadership helped Anzhi to a 3rd place finish in the league and a trip into the Europa League for the club’s first continental games ever. And that gave Kerimov the desire to sway the likes of Christopher Samba, Lacina Traore, and Lassana Diarra either before the start of the 2012-13 season or in the early stages of it. Kerimov was so ambitious that there was talks that Carlos, who he named the club’s director of football in March 2012, had went to Madrid to try and convince the “new” Ronaldo to move to Anzhi.
A first time European group fixture list with Liverpool, Udinese, and Young Boys of Switzerland awaited the growing formidable men of Anchi, and they would show their new class by qualifying for the knockout stages of the tournament in second place behind Liverpool. Kerimov was delighted enough to then make his largest transfer ever, more expensive than the 21 others he made before including Eto’o. The exciting Willian was brought from Shakhtar Donetsk for a club-record £35million, and was set to collaborate with Eto’o and Traore to form Europe’s new dangerous trio.
Then suddenly, the Anzhi dam broke.
Desperate for those vital top 2 spots for the lucrative Champions League, Anzhi were unable to top both traditional powers CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg throughout the domestic premier league. They finished the dreaded place outside the Champions League spots for any club with ambitions of being in the premiere club competition in third place, a clear nine points behind Zenit for second.
It was a blow for Hiddink, but an even larger one for Kerimov, who started to realize that owning a club wasn’t as rosy on the pockets for a wealthy man like Roman Abramovich or the sheik at Manchester City. Devastated at his club not being in the Champions League going into his third year and second full year with the club, Kerimov realized that he lost the spark to be a high level football owner. It wasn’t worth the negative press and results in a life of a successful billionaire.
Hiddink had sensed Kerimov’s uncertainty and left the club before the mass exodus. Despite leading them to their longest journey in Europe, Hiddink reneged on extending his contract with Anzhi for one more year and quit the club altogether a month later in July 2013. The famed Dutch manager said that he left the club because he completed his mission to give Anzhi a foundation to build on. But considering what Kerimov was going to do next, Hiddink may have saw that foundation he was supposedly built about to be shattered.
With no Champions League money and prestige arriving to Anzhi-Arena, Kerimov decided to dramatically scale down the club’s annual budget by virtually a third, from $180 million in 2012-13 to an austerity-like reduction of $50-$70 million. And with that reduction came the inevitable fire sell, proposed by club President Konstantin Remchukov.
Goodbye Eto’o, goodbye Zhirov, goodbye Diarra, goodbye Samba, goodbye Boussoufa, goodbye Dzsudzsak, and last but certainly not cheap, goodbye Willian. We barely got to know you. Or rather, all of you to be honest.
Out of the 22 players brought in under Kerimov’s tenure, only eight have remained with Anzhi. And that could all be dramatically reduced to one or zero altogether if Anzhi remains in the relegation zone in the Russian Premier League all season long. And as Tottenham will likely make it 13 winless games to start their season on Thursday, on current form, Anzhi have a lesser chance to win the Europa League than Championship side Wigan.
That’s not the sentence that Suleyman Kerimov and Anzhi fans wanted as the end result of his takeover in January 2011, to be down with the relegated Wigan’s of the world instead of rubbing with the game’s elite like CSKA and Zenit do regularly each year.
With the way things are going for Anzhi at the moment, the only teams that billionaire Kerimov’s side will be rubbing elbows with, instead, will be those in the Russian First Division for a long while.
But hey, he can try and make Emmanuel Adebayor the richest player on Earth if he wants to.