A brand new stadium, world class players and one of football’s top coaches – things couldn’t have been looking better for Anzhi Makhachkala six months ago as the 2012-13 Russian Premier League season resumed after its winter break. The club was still in with a chance of winning the country’s domestic title and qualifying for next season’s UEFA Champions League. All seemed to be going to plan for billionaire owner, Suleyman Kerimov who had just spent €35 million in bringing Shakhtar Donetsk’s much sought after forward, Willian, to the south of Russia.
Money does not always breed instant success and this is a lesson the side from Dagestan are slowly learning, much to the delight of numerous football fans around Russia, who amongst other things can only look at Anzhi’s spending power with envy. Anzhi would achieve neither aim of winning the Russian Premier League title or qualifying for this season’s Champions League, winning just three of 11 league encounters.
Was last season’s poor form merely a hiccup, or something more terminal? The team’s current form would perhaps point to something more terminal.
The new Russian Premier League season is a month old, yet Anzhi have yet to win in four games, mustering only two points so far. Guus Hiddink decided to resign after just two matches of this campaign; however, the Dutchman had just signed a new contract in June, alleviating fears that he would retire at the end of last season. At this stage it is difficult to assert whether the 66 year-old left of his own accord or was fired. Hiddink’s own statement was: “We managed to strengthen the squad, but also the coaching staff, brining in Rene Meulensteen. Therefore I decided that my work here is finished and that I can leave my post.” It does seem strange that Hiddink resigned so quickly, especially given that he had a seemingly endless transfer budget and from when I had spoken to him, he had very much bought into the Anzhi project of trying to develop the long term future of the club.
If the signing of Willian may have upset the balance of Anzhi last season, the purchase of Igor Denisov has certainly had a more detrimental effect. This is a player who is no stranger to controversy. On the eve of the UEFA Euro 2008 Championships in Austria and Switzerland, the coach of Russia, a certain Guus Hiddink, decided to call Denisov into his squad following his excellent displays in helping Zenit St. Petersburg lift the UEFA Cup. However, the midfielder turned down the opportunity, with the Dutchman commenting: “Every player is free to decide whether he will play for the national team or not. It’s disappointing he is not with us, but it’s not a problem for me because I like working with those who want to be here.”
More recently Denisov went on strike at his hometown club Zenit after he believed he should be on similar wages to new signings Hulk and Axel Witsel. The dispute led to the Russia captain being demoted to the reserves and the standoff was only averted after Denisov apologised to both the club and it’s fans. The damage had been done and it was no surprise when the combative midfielder signed for big spending Anzhi during the summer.
What was unexpected was that it would take Denisov less than three months to fall out with his new club. This time, quarreling with Samuel Eto’o and Lassana Diarra. Denisov’s future with the club doesn’t look rosy with one source within Anzhi stating: “Denisov is in St. Petersburg at the moment. It is difficult to say what the future will hold, but I think it is unlikely that he will return to Anzhi.”
Bringing in a player with such a history as Denisov’s was always likely to be a gamble for Anzhi, however, if there was ever going to be a club that could match the Russian captain’s wages and ambition, then surely it is the club from Dagestan. It will be interesting what the future holds for the midfielder, who at 29 is no youngster and probably only has four years at the most, playing at the highest level.
After playing last season’s Europa League matches in Moscow, there was hope Anzhi would get permission to return to playing in Makhachkala this season. Unfortunately Dagestan, the region where Makhachkala is situated, happens to be one of the most restless and lawless in the Russian Federation and UEFA were not to be swayed in once again forbidding the side from the North Caucuses to play their home games at the new Anzhi Arena. In fact, at the official opening of the stadium last month, pop star Cher, asked for a couple of extra bullet proof vests before being convinced to play.
Anzhi’s cause would receive backing from perhaps an unlikely source, the President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who called the decision “politicised” and “accepting the recommendations of western governments”. “In Chechnya, we have held over 100 matches, including the Russian Cup final, without a single incident. The 36 year-old went on to add: “We don’t understand what danger UEFA is talking about. This decision is offensive to the whole of Russian football.”
Anzhi have certainly established themselves as one of the top clubs in the Russian Premier League and a force in Eastern Europe. However, it seems as though they have some way to go to fulfilling the dreams of owner Kemirov, both on and off the pitch.
Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.