Doing things the Anzhi way
After plenty of bad press, the well-funded Russian club is finally spending wisely
How do you turn an unfancied football club with barely any public profile outside its regional support base into a famed team of world-beaters?
Outside of a game of Football Manager, an acclaimed game simulator, it's not a problem many of us face -- but to a growing community of well-heeled football club owners in a host of countries from Europe to the Middle East to East Asia, it's a very literal billion-dollar question.
In China, Qatar, the former Soviet bloc and even Switzerland, several clubs are attempting to break into the ranks of the super clubs with massive financial clout as their chief vehicle. Their cases are different from the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and QPR in England, Malaga in Spain or Paris Saint-Germain in France -- clubs well-known enough even before their mega-rich takeovers -- that compete in the world's major leagues. These are clubs from outside football's traditional heartlands, attempting to create not just a winning team but a brand-new football culture and infrastructure for their regions.
Not that things don't always go to plan. After all, with such money comes stifling control. Shanghai Shenhua may have acquired Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, but owner Zhu Jun continues to grab most of the attention. Back in 2007, Zhu insisted he be selected in the match-day squad for a friendly against Liverpool, and this year, firing boss Jean Tigana (replacing him, bizarrely, with new striker Anelka) appears to have failed -- the club is currently languishing in mid-table.
Meanwhile, Qatari clubs have continued to acquire big names -- this summer Nilmar (Al Rayyan), Raul (Al Sadd), Alex Meschini (Al Gharafa) and Houssine Kharja (Al Arabi) have all taken handsome contracts to join the fledgling league -- but not a single team reached the knockout stages of this season's Asian Champions League.
The nadir for such projects was reached in January 2012; just a few months after being taken over by Chechen businessman Bulat Chagaev, Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax was declared bankrupt and demoted to Switzerland's third tier. Be warned fans: Those money-spinning takeovers don't always work out.
With all that in mind, it was easy to be cynical 18 months ago when Russian Premier League side Anzhi Makhachkala, powered by the $7.8 billion personal fortune of investment mogul Suleyman Kerimov, began picking up superstars left, right and center, all of whom said they were joining as part of a "project" to help develop the region of Dagestan as opposed to simply line their pockets.
Since the club was formed in 1991, Anzhi has yo-yoed between Russia's top two divisions, rarely making waves. Most attention it attracted was due to the social and political unrest in their home region of Dagestan, part of Russia's highly unstable North Caucasus region. Almost overnight in January 2011 when Kerimov was announced as the club's new owner, Anzhi was permanently catapulted into the spotlight.
"For me, the important thing isn't how much more I can earn," former Brazil international Roberto Carlos said on joining the club in February 2011. "It's taking part in an interesting, ambitious project which is being developed in Russia." Oh, how we rolled our eyes, especially when just a couple of months later, Kerimov threw the Brazilian a 38th birthday party that reportedly cost $3 million and included a performance by Flo Rida. Not to mention the $2.6 million Bugatti Veyron given to Carlos as a present. Surely Anzhi would prove to be another terrible waste of money, a poorly-run vanity project that served only to enrich players who didn't need the money to begin with.
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On the field, the sense began to grow that the Anzhi "project" was nothing more than a slogan and that money was the sole unifying purpose for the club's players. Results were good, admittedly, but where was the motivation? A series of drab performances in September 2011, combined with rumors that new signing Samuel Eto'o ($500,000 weekly salary) was refusing to take orders from the club's well-respected manager Gadzhi Gadzhiev, led to Gadzhiev's sacking. Some big signings had failed badly. Brazilian striker Diego Tardelli, signed for $8 million, had failed to score a single goal. Hungarian winger Balazs Dzsudzsak, more expensive at a reported $17 million, caught the eye only for bringing a copy of Playboy magazine to his first meeting with the Russian press.
In short, Anzhi looked like a club being smothered by banknotes, but if 2011 was the year that Anzhi played up to the classic nouveau-riche stereotype, 2012 has dissipated much of that cynicism. Indeed, such has been Anzhi's rapid ascent up the Russian Premier League, coupled with a growing respect for Kerimov's project as a whole, that the club points the way ahead for the rest of the world's mega-rich sides seeking to establish themselves among the elite.
First and foremost, the appointment of Guus Hiddink as head coach in February did much to set Anzhi on their way. It was a masterstroke to bring in a man hugely respected in Russia as a talented football coach and a man of substance. If Hiddink was buying into the "project," many reasoned that it might be about more than mere financial benefit.
Some solid performances in the spring helped Anzhi easily secure a place in the 2012-13 Europa League, and they look a safe bet to make the group stages after a 2-0 first-leg qualifying victory over Vitesse Arnhem. Domestically Anzhi is sitting pretty too, unbeaten in third place after three rounds of the new season and improving all the time. It isn't hubristic to suggest they could challenge for the Russian Premier League title this year.
This year has also seen a new maturity in the club's transfer policy. When once the aim was simply tempting big names with big wages, the emphasis under Hiddink has been on shrewdness, addressing weaknesses and picking up promising Russian talent.
Oleg Shatov and Fedor Smolov, two highly promising Russia Under-21 internationals, joined Anzhi over the summer and have performed superbly; both players have since been earmarked for call-ups to Fabio Capello's first full Russia international squad. Another addition, 22-year-old striker Ivorian striker Lacina Traore, joined from fellow Russian side Kuban Krasnodar and is by some distance the signing of the summer so far. Tall and rangy with an eye for goal, Traore scored 18 goals last season and will be the perfect forward foil for Eto'o.
Meanwhile some of the flashy buys in Year 1 have been quietly shelved. Roberto Carlos has been moved aside -- the Brazilian announced his retirement just last month -- and into a new role within the club's administration, removed from day-to-day team affairs. And just six months after joining the club, Dzsudzsak was sent to Dinamo Moscow for a fee of $23 million, $6 million more than Anzhi had paid for him. Whoever heard of a free-spending club actually making a profit on a player?
Off the field, Kerimov's development goals are also slowly coming to fruition. Anzhi's support base has never been stronger -- attendance is up 50% over 2010 with an average of 14,745 per home game in 2011-12, impressive considering that its Dinamo Stadium only holds 16,000. The Anzhi-Arena, a brand-new 27,000-seat home, is due to open at the end of the year, although UEFA is unlikely to allow European matches to be played there any time soon amid continued security fears in the region.
Even so, the club's public-relations campaign continues apace with an impressive website in English and Russian, backed up by the now requisite social media presence. Underpinning the whole operation has been a distinct air of professionalism. Unlike many other ambitious owners, Kerimov has been content to take a back seat, avoiding the press and handing over the day-to-day decision-making to a large team of full-time administrative staff.
Overall, the lessons for billionaire owners are clear for all to see: Bring in the right staff, buy the right players, build up infrastructure and, above all, don't get your hands too dirty with micromanaging the club. It sounds easy enough, but then so few clubs in Anzhi's position have carried it out that the Russians have become something of a model for others to follow. Certainly, if Suleyman Kerimov is ever short of cash, he could make a few rubles writing the billionaire's guide to football club ownership.
James Appell is a respected member of ITV.com's football writing team and has a penchant for all things Eastern European.
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