Dagestani billionaire creates 'the Man City of Russia'
- 5 November 2011
- From the section Europe
On match day in Makhachkala, armed police patrol outside the football stadium. This is one of the most dangerous parts of Russia.
In Dagestan, in the volatile North Caucasus, there are attacks by criminal gangs or Islamist insurgents nearly every day.
But the dangers haven't put off some of the world's top footballers from joining the local team.
Inside the cramped and run-down Soviet-era stadium, Anzhi Makhachkala's biggest star is introduced to the crowd.
"It's Number 99! It's Samuel Eto'o!" shouts an excited voice across the public address.
Cameroonian striker Eto'o has moved to Anzhi from Inter Milan, with a transfer fee almost as high as the Caucasus mountains.
He is estimated to be earning $560,000 (£350,000) a week here, making him the highest paid footballer on the planet.
Anzhi, which plays in the Russian Premier League, has signed other stars, too. Like Mbark Boussoufa from Anderlecht, Yuri Zhirkov from Chelsea, and former Real Madrid defender Roberto Carlos.
But where is all the money coming from?
From a Dagestani billionaire. Suleiman Kerimov, one of Russia's richest men, has made a fortune from potash and gold.
Now he is bankrolling his local football club and giving soccer superstars the chance to cash in - in the Caucasus.
But aren't they scared to be here? Eto'o assures me he is not.
"So far I haven't had any problems in Dagestan," he says. "And I'm not expecting any. Trouble can happen anywhere, even in London, Paris or New York."
But there's more trouble in Dagestan than most places.
Last September two car bombs exploded close to Anzhi's stadium. One policeman was killed and more than 60 people wounded.
The street by the stadium was covered in shattered glass and twisted metal. Shop fronts were ripped to shreds.
For security reasons, the Anzhi players do not spend too much time in Dagestan. They actually live and train a thousand miles away outside Moscow.
The team only flies into Dagestan for its home games - then flies out again. For Carlos it is an unusual experience.
"It is a pity that the team is not based in Dagestan," Carlos says.
"It takes us between two and a half to three hours to travel to our home matches. But I'm getting used to the journey. And I think that our football is bringing joy to local people."
'A bigger project'
You can see that in the stands. When the match against CSKA Moscow gets under way, 15,000 Anzhi fans cheer on their team, waving a sea of green and yellow flags and scarfs.
In a part of Russia battered by high unemployment and daily violence, this club wants to change the dynamic, to give people here something to cheer about. Bringing soccer stars to Dagestan is part of that. But the club has other ideas too.
"The football team is just a part of a bigger project," Anzhi's chief executive German Chistyakov tells me.
"There will be new stadia, new infrastructure for the club, a new training ground, an academy for the kids. It will be a social lift for Dagestan. All these projects will change the lives of people in this region."
There are also likely to be more big money signings, with more top-flight foreign footballers - and possibly a foreign manager - joining Anzhi.
"Every day I get text messages from friends - fellow footballers - who ask me whether they too can come and play in Russia," reveals Eto'o.
"That's great. It means that Dagestan has given Russian football the chance to attract the best players. I hope they'll keep coming here, especially to Anzhi. Because I'd like to play with the best players. Then the situation in this region will improve. Football unites people. That is its greatest power."
Back at the stadium, the mood has changed. Anzhi's supporters are growing impatient and angry.
The fans are booing and throwing flags onto the pitch. That's because the home team is losing 3-5 to the visitors.
Which only goes to show - Anzhi may have earned itself the nickname the "Manchester City of Russian football", but money alone is no guarantee of success. These stars will need to start playing as a team if the dream of Champions League football is to come true.