By Kris Voakes
The term ‘billionaire’s plaything’ is a familiar part of football’s lexicon these days, with Suleiman Kerimov once held up as a prime example. But after turning former minnows Anzhi Makhachkala into one of the most intriguing outfits in world football by bringing in some of the game's biggest stars on massive pay deals, the wealthy owner's decision to slash costs represents the end of a dream which he himself had fostered within the ranks of the Dagestan outfit.
Anzhi were virtual unknowns in world terms before Kerimov bought the club in January 2011 and promised to elevate them to the kind of levels that would see them challenge for the Champions League. Signings such as Samuel Eto'o, Lassana Diarra and Willian cost him millions upon millions of euros as he used his wealth to attract previously unattainable superstars in the hope of making Anzhi a world force.
He claimed to want to revitalise the economy and reputation of Dagestan, but quickly found several road blocks in his way. The team were forced to play European games away from their home region, while players took to training in Moscow and flew in only for home games.
Just 31 months later, Kerimov has admitted defeat in his quest to fulfil his dream, throwing his cards face up and giving up on the whole idea of playing at the high stakes table. Instead, after a series of events from poor form on the field and intra-squad clashes to the collapse of a business deal, the potash magnate has realigned his targets and decided to simply head for modest stability, carving $100 million dollars (£64m) off the annual budget and sacking coach Rene Meulensteen 16 days after he took the reins.The beginning of the 2013-14 season has gone anything but well for Anzhi. With just two points collected from four games and Guus Hiddink having given up the head coaching position, it was clear to everyone that they were well short of their target of lifting the Russian Premier League.
Furthermore, rifts were appearing between the players behind the scenes. Igor Denisov’s arrival from Zenit St. Petersburg had naturally been big news, with the Russia international leaving his boyhood club after one too many issues off the field. But his integration into the dressing room at Anzhi had anything but the air of a fresh start.
After falling out with Zenit over his desire to be paid as healthily as Hulk and Axel Witsel, Denisov quickly attempted to redistribute the power balance in the dressing room in Makhachkala. When he brought into question the worth of high earners Samuel Eto’o, Lassana Diarra and Mbark Boussoufa, he instantaneously instigated a split in the camp. Diarra responded with an overly-aggressive tackle on Denisov in training and Eto’o marched all the non-Russian players in the squad off the pitch.
Things got no better for Kerimov. There followed much talk of health troubles for the billionaire and his Uralkali potash company lost half a billion dollars in a day after the collapse of a venture in Belarus, cutting the value of his stock by around 15 per cent in one fell swoop. Then came a home defeat to Rostov which tested the owner’s patience and lost Meulensteen his new job.
|'ANZHI WILL PROBABLY BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL'
“Signs of difficulty were building each day at Anzhi. Disappointing results and conflict inside the team affected Kerimov's faith in the project. When he lost more than $500 million (£323m) in the market it only got worse.
The Uralkali loss did influence his decision but it was not the only factor. Infighting in the dressing room, combined with his recent health problems only further exacerbated the situation.
Denisov couldn't stand the fact Eto’o rules the party and that most foreign players accept this. They had some serious disputes, and the board supported Eto’o and co.
Nothing good can come of this. All, or almost all, of Anzhi's best players will depart during this transfer window. They'll be building a new team and instead of fighting for the title will probably have to battle for survival in the Premier League.”Artur Petrosyan, Editor-in-chief at Sport-Express.ru
This new reality has led some onlookers to idealise, claiming that the premise of reducing running costs to meet Financial Fair Play targets, and changing the focus onto the production of youth talent from the Dagestan region in order to boost football in the area, is a more honourable approach than the one Kerimov has so far been working with.
However, that aim relies on a series of factors, not least Kerimov’s continued commitment to the cause in the event of potential further business losses. While he is a local and a football fan, the inability to shift high-paid superstars and/or the continued failure of his side on the field may well test his patience in the face of his attempts to make the club sustainable but successful.
While the new budget, which will see them operate on $50-$70m (£32-£45m) as opposed to previous costs of around $150m (£97m), slots in somewhere around the mid-point of the Premier League, the sudden change in emphasis is hardly the right preparation for a potential relegation battle against the background of a firesale.The club have insisted that players will only be sold at a fair price, but the need to slash the wage bill is bound to weigh heavily when any official bids come in. Willian, Eto’o, Diarra and Yuri Zhirkov are among those who are likely to be involved in the mass exodus to come, with the Brazilian having already dropped heavy hints to Goal in a recent interview that he was ready to cut and run.
“I have enormous affection and respect for Anzhi, but everybody knows that my dreams and desires haven’t changed,” said Willian in July after his inclusion in the Goal 50. “I have the goal of playing for a big club and being in the spotlight to rejoin the Brazil national team.”
Now, less than three years after the club blasted their way into international consciousness, Kerimov looks set to drag them straight back out of the spotlight in similarly sensational circumstances.
There is now much work to be done to stop Anzhi from paying a heavy price for having had such an audacious dream and avoid becoming the stark example of just how badly things can go wrong for clubs owned by, and left at the mercy of, a man of money.