Quick, what soccer team has the world’s best-paid player and coach on its payroll? It’s not Real Madrid, who previously held that honor, or Manchester United or any of the other usual suspects. No, these days the team with the big bucks is Anzhi Makhachkala.
What, you’ve never heard of Anzhi Makhachkala?
Anzhi—it means “pearl”—play in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, Russia’s poorest and most violent region. The Russian army has battled Islamic guerillas here for two decades. Although the Kremlin calls the conflict “a low-level insurgency,” Der Spiegel reported that in 2010 the province experienced near civil war—half of all terrorists attacks in Russia that year happened in Dagestan, which is ninety percent Muslim and only four percent ethnically Russian. Last week, at least 13 police officers were killed and 17 others wounded as helicopter gun-ships battled militants on the densely forested border with Chechnya.
You’d think there might be things Dagestan needs more than a world-class soccer team. Not so, according to Suleyman Kerimov, the Dagestani-born oligarch who backs Anzhi with his $7.8 billion fortune. The secretive Kerimov made his money in an unusual way: instead of buying ownership stakes in Russia’s newly-privatized heavy industries, as many other tycoons did in the 1990’s, Kerimov invested in Russian and American blue-chips, flipping his assets for huge profits after just a few years. The Financial Times described him as “a Russian Gatsby” and reported on speculation that the senator and Putin-ally is actually a front-man for the Kremlin.
Now, Kerimov is investing his vast resources in soccer. He’s already purchased Roberto Carlos (125 appearances for the Brazilian national team) and given the Cameroonian attacker Samuel Eto’o a contract worth $27 million per year. This week, he hired a new coach, Guus Hiddink, for $13.25 million per year (the average Dagestani made about $3,220 in 2011.) The Dutch gaffer has a history of popping up in unusual places, having guided South Korea, Australia, Turkey and Russia into the knockout stages of major international tournaments.
But Dagestan? The place is so unsafe that not a single Anzhi player makes his home there. Instead, Eto’o and co. fly 1,250 miles from Moscow to Makhachkala for every home game. The last time the team qualified for European competition in 2001 their “home” match against Scotland’s Rangers had to be played in Warsaw because of security concerns.
Kerimov says he hopes a revitalized Anzhi will bring peace and economic development to Dagestan. He has promised to build a 45,000-seat stadium on the shores of the Caspian Sea outside Makhachkala, as well as a resort. All told, the complex might cost as much as $1.5 billion.
While beautiful stadiums and luxury hotels are nice, Dagestan also needs more schools, hospitals, and paved roads.
In fairness, Kerimov did contribute $24 million to Dagestan’s school system in 2010. Perhaps that money will go some way toward alleviating the racism that plagues Russian soccer. Fans routinely taunt black players, making monkey noises and hurling bananas at them whenever they touch the ball (Anzhi’s Roberto Carlos walked off the field in disgust last June after being subjected to such treatment by fans of FC Krylia Sovetov). It’s a problem Russia will certainly have to deal with before it hosts the World Cup in 2018. Preventing fans from bringing bananas into games, as one club tried to do, probably won’t be enough.