Anzhi Makhachkala: 10 Things You Need to Know About New Russian Superpower
In years to come, 2011 will be marked as the year that the name Anzhi Makhachkala was suddenly thrust into the vocabulary of the international football fan.
The club, previously of little note outside of the southern corner of Russia which they inhabit, has been in the news enough over the past 12 months that most followers of the global game could probably make a fair stab at pronouncing its name correctly.
A recent injection of huge finances has allowed them to tempt Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos, Russian international Yuri Zhirkov and—most surprisingly—Samuel Eto'o into leaving their respective major clubs in order to help build the Anzhi project, and those could just be the first.
Here is the lowdown on a club which you will be hearing a lot more about from now on.
1. Younger Than Danny Welbeck
In the late 1980s a spirit of renewed parochialism led to increased autonomy in outlying areas of the Soviet Union such as Georgia, Chechnya and Azerbaijan.
Dagestan, the multi-ethnic republic on the banks of the Caspian Sea, rode that wave. It was in that spirit that the club Anzhi ("pearl") Makhachkala (the Dagestani capital) was founded in 1991 by industrialist and politician Magomed-Sultan Magomedov, who poached players from the neighbouring Dynamo Makhachkala.
While Russia's oldest club—Dynamo Moscow—was founded in 1923, Anzhi did not come into being until a year after Manchester United and English striker Danny Welbeck was born.
Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere, who is yet to turn 20, is just a few months younger than the Russian Premier League club.
2. Rapid Rise and Fall
Like any new professional club, Anzhi began life in the bottom tier of the Russian league, entering their regional section of the Russian Second Division in 1992.
In only their fifth season they won promotion to the First Division as well as reaching the quarterfinals of the Russian Cup.
That success was largely built upon the success in front of goal by striker Ibrigam Gasanbekov, who scored a monster 33 league goals that season, a third of Anzhi's total that year.
After just three years they won promotion again and entered the Russian Premier League just nine years after their formation. That fairytale foray only lasted another three seasons before they were relegated having won just five league games in 2002.
3. First European Adventure
While the funding of the billionaire benefactor Suleyman Kerimov will surely mean we will see Anzhi in European competition sooner rather than later, they will not be venturing into the complete unknown.
In 2000 they had their best season ever, finishing fourth in their first season in the top flight and reaching the quarterfinals of the Russian Cup. The following year, they struggled in the Premier League but went even further in the Cup, reaching the final.
Despite losing on penalties to Lokomotiv Moscow, Anzhi qualified for the UEFA Cup. They were drawn against Scottish giants Rangers, geographically one of the furthest clubs away from them that they could have played.
In an unusual set of circumstances incurred by the unrest in neighbouring Chechnya, UEFA ruled that the two-legged tie would be played as a one-off match in Warsaw, Poland, which the Rangers won 1-0 courtesy of Bert Konterman's 85th-minute winner.
Anzhi may have only played one match in Europe, but it was one that gave them a lot of creditability.
4. Touched by Tragedy
The aforementioned Gasanbekov is a genuine legend in the club's short history. The Azeri striker was one of those who moved from Dynamo to join the newly-founded Anzhi in 1991, and he proved a real hit.
In 236 league games he scored 156 times for the club as they rose up the divisions to the top flight in 1999.
Sadly, that year his life was cut short at the age of just 29 when he was killed in a car accident. The club retired the No. 11 shirt of "Ibrashka" in tribute to their star man.
Last year the club was struck by another road tragedy when defender Shamil Berziyev, a native of Makhachkala, met with a fatal crash on the road between Rostov and Baku.
The 25-year-old had only made six appearances for his hometown club following his mid-season arrival, but his loss nonetheless sent shock waves through the club.
5. Kerimov's Billions
The course of the club's history—and perhaps that of all Russian football—was changed forever when the club was sold to billionaire Suleyman Kerimov in January 2011.
The Dagestan-born Kerimov was one of the men who made shrewd and timely investments in business and industry at the beginning of Russia's new commercial freedom, and has amassed wealth to the tune of an estimated £7 billion.
However, it later emerged that the president of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, handed Kerimov control of the club on the condition that the wealthy industrialist would make hefty investment in the region's infrastructure.
The deal was a stroke of political genius, ensuring visible progress in the region that was both symbolic and tangible.
6. Stars Arrive in Dagestan
Despite Kerimov's obscene wealth it was still a major shock when, just a month after the takeover, legendary Brazilian defender and World Cup winner Roberto Carlos joined the club.
Carlos was very much in the twilight of his career at the age of 37, but it was still a major coup for any Russian club, let alone one which had only returned to the Premier League the previous year.
Carlos was later joined by fellow Brazilan and current international Diego Tardelli.
Another star name to arrive midway through the year was Russian international Yuri Zhirkov, who arrived after two underwhelming years at Chelsea, another club owned by a Russian billionaire.
But by far the biggest transfer coup for Anzhi came later that same summer when, seemingly out of nowhere, it was announced that Samuel Eto'o was joining them.
A Champions League winner with both Barcelona and Inter Milan, Eto'o was still 30 years old and as fit as ever when he made the shock move for a fee of around £25 million. How much the reported world-record salary of £18 million a year played a part in his decision is, naturally, open to debate.
7. A 2,000-Mile Commute
Despite the appropriation of the club as a political and commercial symbol of stability and prosperity in Dagestan, Anzhi's players don't actually live in Makhachkala.
Instead, the squad live and train in the Russian capital of Moscow, and they make the 2,000-mile round-trip to their home ground 15 times a season, not including cup fixtures. That is a longer journey than it takes for the Anzhi squad to reach most of its away matches.
The official reason given for this is the security of the players, whose wealth would perhaps be targets for all sorts of criminal or political motives. It would, of course, be a lot easier to persuade players to come and live in the opulent capital rather than a largely impoverished and isolated city which numbers only 500,000 in population.
As such, the revelation that Eto'o and company live 1,000 miles from their home stadium has been something of a PR own goal.
8. Laying the Foundations
It is not just on the pitch where Kerimov's roubles are being heavily invested.
Anzhi currently play in Dynamo Stadium, the former home of their now-defunct neighbours Dynamo Makhachkala. However, plans are afoot for a £1 billion development on the outskirts of the city which will house the brand new, 40,000-seater Anzhi Arena.
Also on the same plot is planned a major retail outlet and five-star hotels with views overlooking the Caspian Sea, all in a bid to put Makhachkala on the map.
As for the old, dilapidated Dynamo Stadium, that is planned to be the new home of the reserve team.
9. More Ambitious Recruitment Plans
The signings of Carlos (who is now the club's caretaker player/manager), Tardelli, Zhirkov and Eto'o do not represent the end of Anzhi's stellar recruitment drive.
Brazil and Santos starlet Neymar was linked with the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Barcelona and Real Madrid all summer long, but the name of Anzhi also kept cropping up among the transfer rumours. It is believed that representatives of the Russian club even flew to Brazil to meet with Neymar's representatives, although int he end the 19-year-old striker went nowhere.
But perhaps the most ambitious move of all was for Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, who reportedly turned down a £20 million a year salary to stay in Madrid.
Whether such stories have any basis in truth, or are merely rumours generated to boost the club's profile, it is likely that we will see more star names rocking up in Dagestan in the near future.
10. Not Every Russian's Second Team
As with nouveau riche clubs in countless other leagues around the world that have barged in and upset the established order of things, Anzhi spending their way to the top has upset plenty of fans in Russia.
When Rubin Kazan won back-to-back Russian titles in 2008-09, they did so representing the kingdom of Tartarstan. However, their success was largely built on canny recruitment, good management and making their home a fortress rather than gaudy flashes of wealth.
Anzhi's billions have not been received well by fans elsewhere, particularly in the traditional powerhouses of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
When Russia played Serbia in August, Zhirkov became the first Anzhi player to represent Russia, and was booed mercilessly throughout by the home fans throughout the match for being a sellout.
They may have the stars and the cash, but it may be a while before Anzhi are fully accepted by the rest of Russia.