Two-and-a-half years after buying little-known Russian club Anzhi and dramatically announcing to a sceptical press that he would make it a Champions League winner, billionaire owner Suleiman Kerimov has suddenly backtracked and will drastically cut the club’s budget. RT sport presenter Kate Partridge looks at the reasons why – and the future for the “Anzhi Project”.
It would be a monumental coincidence if Suleiman Kerimov’s decision to slash Anzhi’s enviable budget were not related to personally damaging losses. A fortnight ago, potash producer Uralkali announced it had severed a Belarusian trade agreement, which ended a cartel that fixed the price, which made the cash that built the team that Kerimov started. Overnight, the Dagestani lost an estimated $500m of his $6bn fortune and presumably the stung oligarch looked at his outgoings and thought it was time to tighten his beautifully crafted belt.
On-pitch factors haven’t helped. Guus Hiddink resigned two winless games into the season. Then reports abounded of a rift between newly signed Russia captain Igor Denisov – never one to shy away from controversy – and $200,000-per-week striker Samuel Eto'o, with new coach Rene Meulensteen caught in the middle like an unwitting bystander. And then, sixteen days after taking over, the unfortunate Dutchman became the fifth manager to leave in the two-and-a-half years under Kerimov – with the club fourth bottom and winless in four.
So, with a budget sliced from around $180m to about 62m, the effects have been felt immediately. Gone are the days when Anzhi will splash out mind-boggling sums on big-name players such as Eto’o – and present stars such as Roberto Carlos with a $3m Bugatti Veyron.
Sixty-two million dollars would probably now buy a third of Lionel Messi, half of Cristiano Ronaldo or the in-demand pins of Gareth Bale. Yet instead of purchasing Galacticos, there will be wage cuts and the exiting of top earners. Eto’o accrues anything between $10-20m per year so he will probably be on a plane before this article goes to print – perhaps Russian-owned Chelsea, at a pinch (and a pay cut).
And it’s not just expensive foreigners: Russians will also go. Because the Premier League quota system requires four native players to be named per team, the price of Russian players is at a premium due to the laws of supply and demand. Consequently, the recently acquired duo of Denisov and striker Aleksandr Kokorin, as well as former Chelsea defender Yuri Zhirkov, had gone to Dynamo Moscow within a day of Kerimov’s statement.
So without imported stars and household names, the team will now turn to the second part of the Anzhi Project: investment in youth. Much of Kerimov’s money has been spent on infrastructure, and aimed at encouraging young players, particularly from his native Dagestan. And perhaps the team will return there full-time. Anzhi’s players currently live and train in Moscow and fly the 800 miles (1,300 km) to Makhachkala for home games – a lavish expense that can now be avoided as the club goes local.
While rival teams and fans gleefully contemplate the prospect of Anzhi’s demise, there’s still a chance for success, albeit only domestically. CSKA won the league and cup double last year on a budget of $90m, and a place in this season’s Champions League will boost the Armymen’s coffers. While Anzhi might be in the less lucrative Europa League, any European run helps generate revenue. The club already has its stadium, training facilities and academy in place. And selling some of their top players should also generate some cash.
However, in global terms, unless there is a rapid reversal of policy, the team will return whence it came and Kerimov’s much publicised vision of turning Anzhi into European champions now has more than a smack of Ozymandias. Last year, the turnover of three-time winners Manchester United was $500m, Real Madrid $700m, Barcelona $650m, and current champions Bayern Munich $450m, which is set to rocket. Anzhi simply cannot compete.
Moreover, such turnover is effectively earned in three ways. First, match day revenue: while over 70,000 people pack out Old Trafford, Anzhi is a relatively new club, founded in 1991 and has a capacity of just 30,000. Secondly, TV and broadcast deals: without Champions League revenue to lure and fund the players, breaking into the Champions League is an almighty task. Thirdly, commercial activities: this is still light years behind the West. And finally, by announcing you’re cutting funding means other teams will be able to cherry pick your top players on the cheap.
So far this season, Anzhi’s two draws and two defeats sees them already eight points adrift of leaders Spartak and surprise package Rostov. However, there’s a tendency to compare Kerimov and Anzhi with Roman Abramovich and Chelsea – and you can’t. Chelsea already had a history, infrastructure and established fan base in place when Abramovich replaced owner Ken Bates at Stamford Bridge. Anzhi did not.
Last season produced the club’s best ever result. They were title contenders for the first half of the campaign – until Christopher Samba left for QPR – still finished third behind CSKA and Zenit, and in the Europa League for the second time in their history. As new teams go, it was pretty impressive. This season will be a real litmus test for the future. Experienced coach Gadzhi Gadzhiyev is back from Krylya Sovetov to help steady the iceberg-hit ship. His is an unenviable task.
Views on the budget cut vary widely. Some pundits and fans think a more pragmatic approach will benefit the club and see the timing as fortuitously in line with UEFA’s Financial Fair play regulations. Others see the announcement as embarrassing for the Russian Premier League and Russia’s image ahead of the 2018 World Cup. While opponents revel in schadenfreude, relishing the prospect that football’s latest parvenus have learned their lesson and will disappear quietly.
Whatever the outcome, Kerimov’s largesse and Anzhi’s headline-grabbing signings have enlivened the Russian media for over two seasons and this will be missed. And, hopefully, the underlying philanthropic aspirations of a proud Dagestani ultimately do benefit the area he has generously supported, and provide yet more spice to the Russian top flight.