Forbes magazine lists Russian billionaire Suleyman Kerimov as an "investor in distressed companies," so it's hardly surprising the world's 146th-richest man ended up owning a football club in a war-torn corner of his homeland.
That club is Anzhi Makhachkala, and when Kerimov took over in January 2011, he pledged to draw on his vast wealth—estimated at $6.5 billion—to transform them into a major European force.
Kerimov was born and educated in the southern city of Makhachkala, which serves as capital of the republic of Dagestan and lies close to the Russian borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan. The now-46-year-old Kerimov would have known only too well the volatile political climate he would be working against by the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Last September, the New York Times reported Dagestan had overtaken Chechnya as the most dangerous area in the region.
The violence involves a combination of a growing Islamist insurgency along with criminal gangs and clan wars that have plagued Dagestan, home to 2.5 million people, for many years.
A poverty-ridden mountainous republic composed of more than 30 ethnic groups, Dagestan is supported by large financial subsidies from Moscow, while soldiers and the police try to quell almost daily episodes of violence.
Such security fears are the reason Anzhi's players are not based in Makhachkala at all, but on the outskirts of Moscow, from where they fly 1,250 miles to home matches to maintain their safety.
It's a curious and undesirable arrangement to set upon professional athletes, but the large sums of money to be earned clearly promote a tolerance to it. With an oligarch calling the shots, normal rules don't apply.
Kerimov arrived at Anzhi with a reputation for grand gestures. Profiled by the Financial Times as the "Russian Gatsby of his time," he was known for his opulent, celebrity-filled parties, on which it was rumored he would spend as much as $10 million entertaining his guests.
Such indulgence quickly translated to the task at hand with Anzhi. Kerimov signaled his intent with a deal for legendary Brazilian full-back Roberto Carlos, who, despite being 37 and in the dimming twilight of a glittering career, was offered a reported $9 million a year to leave Corinthians and come to Russia.
Unsurprisingly, he accepted.
As a sign of his gratitude (as if $22.5 million over two-and-a-half years wasn't enough), Kerimov treated the 2002 World Cup winner to a Bugatti Veyron sports car worth $3 million on his 38th birthday just two months later—pricking the ears of every footballer and his agent on the planet in the process.
With a single extravagance, Anzhi had put themselves on the map. A previously unremarkable footballing outpost plagued by political unrest and uncertainty was now being talked about as European football's next superpower.
And Kerimov was just getting started.
The 2011-12 Russian Premier League season began last March—and by the time it kicked off, Anzhi had spent around $42 million on new players.
In the summer of 2011, Kerimov upped the ante still further. Samuel Eto'o arrived from Inter Milan for $30 million and became the highest-paid footballer in history on a gluttonous salary of $555,000/week.
The Cameroon international and three-time Champions League winner strongly disputed the suggestion his move was purely financially motivated. He talked about empire building in an interview with the Guardian:
We are striving to be like Barcelona, they are the inspiration. Barcelona are the reference point in football today, not Manchester City.
It is a matter of opinion whether City provide the closest parallel to Anzhi. ... Money should not be the reason to compare these clubs.
The goal at Anzhi is to achieve something from a region that has not been explored and to bring this team, through a nice football philosophy, to a better standing in the world of football. And that is it.
By the time Eto'o arrived in late August, Yuri Zhirkov had also completed a $17 million move from Chelsea to Anzhi. And with the winter break came a $16 million deal to lure Christopher Samba from Blackburn.
If Anzhi weren't already being taken seriously, the arrival of Guus Hiddink as their manager in February 2012 confirmed beyond any doubt the side's credibility. Hiddink's resume includes spells at PSV, Real Madrid and Chelsea, along with international duties at the Netherlands, South Korea, Australia and Russia.
Here's what the respected Dutchman had to say upon his appointment:
The most significant thing for me is that the club is building plans on football development in the republic. It's as much important as the sports result of the first team, and I'm going to pay special attention to this direction.
We spoke much with Suleyman Kerimov about this after which I realized what a huge project I was invited to.
The developments Hiddink spoke of were a reference to Kerimov's plans to build football academies across Dagestan and his desire to use football as a catalyst for change and as a force for good in the area.
"The football club stands out against all the negative news," Kerimov told the Financial Times.
"People are starting to hope for the better. Such stars don’t play everywhere, and, look, they’re in Makhachkala."
"People have something to be proud of," Kerimov continued. "It means they can see something positive there and they gain the motivation to work. On first impressions, Kerimov's involvement at Anzhi might appear a vulgar exercise in buying success, but his motivations clearly run deeper than that."
Could it be that this oligarch has a heart? Are we witnessing a monumental act of football philanthropy?
According to the Financial Times, Kerimov has so far invested over $260 million on players and $130 million on building Anzhi a new stadium. If he truly is motivated by the greater good and not just by the status that comes with owning a football club, the game is a better place with him in it.
Whatever Kerimov's modus operandi might be, it's abundantly clear, Makhachkala and its surrounding areas could use a boost in these most trying of times. Football can help provide it, and the more success and fame they achieve, the more hope and ambition will reach the people.
A good start would be qualifying for the 2012-13 Champions League, which, owing to a restructuring of the Russian Premier League, remains a possibility as the season enters its third and final leg.
Anzhi finished a disappointing eighth at the end of the regular season, but it was enough to see them scrape through to the championship phase and keep their Champions League hopes alive. As things stand, they're three points adrift of the qualification places.
I, for one, am hoping they make it. Even if they don't, you can expect the Russians to be linked to every big-name player in the transfer market this summer. It's worth noting Kerimov wanted Lionel Messi last year, so he could be after the entire Barcelona team this time around.
Hopefully, one day, the city will be safe enough that the members of the team's star-studded roster can actually live there.
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