Manuel Veth –
Anzhi Makhachkala may undergo their sixth change of direction this winter break. As championat.com reported this week, owner, Suleyman Kerimov, and operational director, Suren Mkrtchyan, whose uncle, Oleg Mkrtchyan is a major investor in the club, have major differences over how the team should be moving forward in the future.
As a result, it is rumoured that the club could be selling all key players during the winter transfer window, and may also fire head coach, Pavel Vrba. Suren Mkrtchyan, according to sporting director, Sergei Doronchenko, would, in this case, also cease to be involved in the club.
A final decision on how the club will move forward is still pending, but it is understood that in the worst case scenario Anzhi Makhachkala will finish the season with their second squad.
Anzhi Makhachkala are currently in a strong mid-table position
Anzhi are currently 11th with 20 points after 17 matchdays in the Russian Football Premier League. They are a comfortable six points ahead of the first relegation playoff place, which is currently occupied by 13th placed FC Ural, and 8 points ahead of a direct relegation spot, which is currently occupied by 15th placed Arsenal Tula.
Despite the gap, however, Anzhi could still be in real trouble, and be dragged into the relegation battle were Suleyman Kerimov to undertake yet another change of direction for his club.
As mentioned above, this would be the sixth change in strategy since Suleyman Kerimov bought the club in 2011 when Anzhi Makhachkala was supposed to become a major force in European football. Hence, we will take a look at the six chapters of the Suleyman Kerimov- Anzhi Makhachkala story.
Chapter I – Anzhi Makhachkala and the birth of a superclub
The first chapter begins when Kerimov bought the club from the president of Dagestan Magomedsalam Magomedov and the Dagestani businessman Igor Yakovlev in January 2011. The Russia newspaper Vedomosti later reported that the club was given to Kerimov free of charge and in return the billionaire covered losses of 130 million roubles (£2.7 million) that the club had accumulated since 2009.
Kerimov promised immediate investment into the club, which included $30-50 million for players, as well as $200 million for the club’s infrastructure. In March 2011, Anzhi bought their first high profile player, the Brazilian Roberto Carlos, and in August 2011 the club bought the Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o for £18.4 million from the Italian club Inter Milan.
Eto’o signed a three year deal in which he would earn £8.7 million annually. Other players followed, attracted by the high salaries, and also, perhaps, by the fact that they did not actually have to live in Makhachkala, as the club was located in Moscow, where the club used the training facilities of the bankrupt club Saturn Ramenskoe, and only travelled the 1600 kilometres from Moscow to Makhachkala for their home games.
With all the new signings, Anzhi appeared to be well on track to become a major force in European football. Kerimov, in the meantime, wanted to milk the success of the club for his own political benefit, as he wanted to become president of the Republic of Dagestan.
In the summer of 2013, Anzhi made another huge wave of investments signing, amongst others, the Russian national team players Aleksandr Kokorin and Igor Denisov.
Anzhi, then demonstrated how short-lived the political ambitions of oligarchs in Russia can be when, shortly after investing €59.5 million in new players in the summer of 2013, Suleyman Kerimov announced a change of direction.
Chapter II – Anzhi Makhachkala’s relegation to the Football National League
The curtain on the second chapter went up when, within weeks, the club put the entire squad up for sale. Officially, the reason given for this fire sale was that the club wanted to focus on redeveloping local talent from Dagestan.
Just prior to Anzhi’s fire sale, Kerimov had come under economic pressure when he lost hundreds of millions of pounds in his fertilizer operation in Belarus, and was even wanted for crimes by the Belarusian authorities.
The club had spent £290 million on new players since Kerimov took control of the club, and it was rumoured that along with his financial difficulties, Kerimov was also facing health problems. All in all, this was a major political scandal which made it impossible for Kerimov to run for public office.
Overall, the club sold 25 players for €157.85 million. The club announced that it would reduce its budget from £116 million a season to between £32 and £45 million, which still placed it in the mid-table range for Russian clubs. But the sudden departure of top players, as well as the turmoil created by the owner, resulted in poor performances and, at the end of the 2013-14 season, Anzhi was relegated to the Football National League (the second division).
Chapter III – Fringe players and promotion glory
What followed was the third chapter in which the club began to rebuild the squad using a mix of young local talent and Russian fringe players. In some ways, the club returned to what it was before Suleyman Kerimov became the president of the club. Investments were reduced to a bare minimum with the club buying new players for just €750,000.
The team also moved away from Moscow, and started to train in the South Caucasus. Another development at this time was the renovation of the Khazar Stadium in Makhachkala in 2013. The Khazar Stadium had been built in 2003, and duly opened with a concert featuring Cher, but turned out to be unusable for football due to the high prevailing winds from the Caspian Sea. Now, with the renovation at the Khazar Stadium complete, Anzhi could make the permanent move from the decrepit Dynamo Stadium to the more modern facility.
The permanent return of the club to Dagestan also meant that the club was now exposed to the inpredictable politics of the region on a more frequent basis. Dagestan has been a volatile since the fall of the Soviet Union and was recently regarded by the BBC as the most dangerous place in Europe. In January 2015 one of the club’s young prospects, 20-year-old Gasan Magomedov was shot and killed after traveling home having played football with his friends. The death of Magomedov in particular represented a horrible reminder of the troubles that still plague Russia’s Caucasus region, and the apparent indiscriminate nature of the violence.
Despite the limited investments, and the tragedy of young Magomedov, Anzhi managed to immediately return to the Russian Football Premier League by finishing second behind Krylia Sovetov Samara in the Football National League in the 2014-15 season. Furthermore, their small investments paid off, as forward Yannick Boli, who was purchased for €600,000 from Zorya Luhansk won the goal scoring title in Russia’s second division that season.
Chapter IV – Return to the Russian Football Premier League
Back in the Russian Football Premier League, which we can now describe as the fourth chapter, the involvement of the Ukrainian-Armenian oligarch Oleg Mkrtchyan became a major talking point at the club.
Although investment remained minimal (€850,000 for new players) the Mkrtchyan clan seemed to be involved in many of the new signings. Makhachkala also presented Yuri Semin, as the club’s new head coach after firing Sergey Tashuyev, who had guided the team back to the Russian Football Premier League.
Semin was supposed to guide the many young players brought in by Kerimov, and Mkrtchyan in an attempt to develop, and sell on players with market potential. But after gaining just six points in the first ten games Yuri Semin was fired, and replaced by the former Uzbek national team player Ruslan Agalarov, who was actually born and raised in Makhachkala.
Under Agalarov Anzhi managed to survive in the RFPL, finishing the season in 13th place, and then beating Volgar Astrakhan 3-0 (1-0 and 2-0) on aggregate in the relegation playoffs.
Chapter V – The Armenian businessman
Agalarov was then replaced during the summer with the Czech head coach Pavel Vrba, who had recently coached the Czech national team. The club also signed the likes of former Hamburger SV player Ivo Iličević, two Spartak players Pavel Yakovlev and Roman Parshivlyuk, and Shakhtar forward and member of the Ukrainian national team, Pylyp Budkivskyi.
Oleg Mkrtchyan’s involvement also became more visible. The former Kuban Krasnodar were relegated in the 2015-16 season, and he brought in five players (Rabiu Mohammed, Xandão, Aleksandr Belenov, Sergei Karetnik, and Svyatoslav Georgievski) from his former club on free transfers.
These investments have meant that the club has played a relative stable season and, at times, has even been able to shock some of the bigger clubs in Russia. Indeed perhaps this can be described as the fifth chapter in Anzhi’s development since Suleyman Kerimov took over as the owner of the club in 2011.
Chapter VI – The end of a Dagestani Fairytale?
Now, however, it appears that there is, once again, uncertainty as to how the club will move forward. Kerimov’s role, especially, has become somewhat of a question mark. The oligarch originally envisioned the club to be an important vehicle that would launch his political career by opening the door for him to become president of the Republic of Dagestan.
Instead, he became involved in a political-business scandal, which ended his career in politics, and left Anzhi adrift and without clear goals. In recent times, it appeared that Kerimov simply viewed the club, as an investment that would develop players and sell them off to bigger clubs.
This would explain why he chose to work with the Mkrtchyans, who have had similar business models with several other clubs in Russia, and Ukraine—including Kuban Krasnodar, FC Armavir, and Metalurh Donetsk.
Since developing the likes of Yaya Touré, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Metalurh Donetsk, Mkrtchyan’s record of making capital gains on top players has been somewhat diminished. This could explain why the oligarch remains reluctant to make further investments in the club, which leaves Anzhi without direction or financial resources.
In some ways the time since Kerimov took over would be sixth chapter of the club, and it remains to be seen whether it will be the final chapter of the Anzhi Makhachkala-Kerimov saga. Yet, as long as this story goes on, it seems fitting that the club that represents the most volatile region in the Russian Football Premier League, also seems to have the most dramatic story in the more recent history of Russia’s top flight.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, writer for Bundesliga.com, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.