Just when all of us thought Roman Abramovich was the short-tempered, smoking gun of the footballing world, along comes another Russian oligarch, doing his best to topple Abramovich off that perch of his.
Suleyman Kerimov sent the global football community into a state of shock when he announced massive cut-backs at the Dagestan-based club – Anzhi Makhachkala – a club he had bought as recently as January 2011.
The cut-backs included sacking their manager of 16 days, Rene Meulensteen, putting the entire squad up for sale, and aiming to slash the annual wage bill from £120 million to £50 million. The official reasoning, as laid bare by club chairman Konstantin Remchukov, has been the “sharp deterioration in the health of Suleiman Kerimov, because of worries about the club’s lack of success”.
If the spaces between the lines were to be probed, it would seem that Kerimov probably hit the revelation that his Dagestan project was little more than a very, very expensive sinking ship.
Kerimov was born and brought up in the Republic of Dagestan, previously belonging to the erstwhile USSR, and currently in Russia. The region has perennially been beset by violence, uprisings and terrorism, owing to a variety of causes, not least of which is the prevalent ethnic tension in the region.
Dagestan has also suffered from an infamous history of corruption, widely being reputed as the most corrupt region both back in the Soviet Union, and now, in Russia. The oligarch was a first-hand witness to the failures and miseries of the land in which he spent his entire life.
However, unlike the rest of the state, Kerimov managed to pull himself out of the doldrums and now stands as the 20th richest Russian, and the 162nd richest man in the world. He also represents the Republic of Dagestan in the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia.
When he purchased local football club Anzhi Makhachkala, his primary aim was the overall upliftment of the area, which would be provided by a holistic approach to development of the club, and subsequently the neighbouring areas. His initial plan was to splurge millions into the recruitment of players, coaches and trainers, and then move on to the long-term movements, which would encompass several initiatives, including the development of a 40,000 seater stadium, refurbished training facilities with Dagestan itself, and a youth academy, so that the club would enter self-sufficiency in the future.
Time has proved, however, that business and altruistic interests do not go hand-in-hand. Anzhi Makhachkala was no different, and the club now finds itself in a state of utter confusion, with the season ahead looking bleak at best.
The project was fated for doom from the very outset, with the economic, political and social scenario far from appropriate for most activities, least of all the running of a football club. Such was the extent of violence and tension in Dagestan, that the players and staff members of Anzhi live and train in a village near Moscow, flying down to the Anzhi Arena in Makhachkala for the team’s home games. A 21-hour flight, or an 1800 km road journey.
The manner of Anzhi’s collapse has been spectacular and sudden to say the least. And it has been brought about by Kerimov’s realisation that his altruistic intentions were beginning to affect his primary money-making ventures. His investment in Uralkali, the world’s largest producers of potash, took a massive hit when their stock prices crashed after they announced the severing of a trade agreement with another Belarusian company; Kerimov took a £326 million hit on his net worth in the process. The Anzhi action could be as much a product of him worrying about his own finances as his lack of faith in the project itself.
Whether the existing Anzhi Makhachkala will go on to succeed in the Russian Premier League, and in European competition (whether the Europa League or the Champions League) remains to be seen. But what is certain for now, is that the club is going to lose its best players, and have little chance of securing new players.
Gadzhi Gadzhiev has now been re-appointed manager, after his previous spell as manager ended in September 2011, and will be overseeing a squad which has been hit by crisis. He has been tasked with taking the team into the upper echelons of the league; it is currently languishing at fourth from bottom.
Yuri Zhirkov, Igor Denisov, Mbark Bousouffa, and several others have already left, and most of the remainder are on their way out, with the most prominent names being Willian and Samuel Eto’o, who are being eyed by Liverpool and Chelsea respectively.
Anzhi’s predicament provides a worrying precedent for football in an age which is dominated entirely by rich business gobbling up small to average teams, and then injecting them with several million pounds of investment which they may not be able to sustain after the initial periods. This was evidenced most recently at Malaga CF, whose owners have made themselves ambiguous by their non-payment of wages and encouragement of player sales.
And then there are Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, and most recently Monaco, whose success and survival depends entirely on the investment from their owners and benefactors. Whether these investments will ever pay dividends, and if these ‘businesses’ survive in the long-term, remains to be seen.