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Russia: FC Anzhi Makhachkala and the Yeltsin Era Money

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, the world has watched Russia's transition into capitalism with great interest. The Yeltsin era of the 1990s was characterized by a struggle over who would emerge from the transition with holdings of Russia's major sources of wealth, such as its natural resources. The victors in that struggle are known as the ‘oligarchs’ because they possess a degree of wealth that surpasses most people's ability to conceptualize.

The January 2011 acquisition of a Russian Premier League soccer team FC Anzhi Makhachkala, in the most volatile region of Russia – Dagestan – by Suleyman Kerimov, a billionaire politician native to the region, is the most recent display of how that wealth is being used.

Vladimir Putin‘s rise has had unexpected effects on the power of the oligarchs in that he has been able to enforce limitations on them and to direct their activities. In August 2011, Jonathan Wilson wrote in a sports blog associated with The Guardian about Putin's influence:

[…] It's a fairly open secret that oligarchs are encouraged by Vladimir Putin to invest in sporting ventures. Kerimov may be a diehard Anzhi fan, but it seems just as likely that he was advised to invest. After all, if Anzhi do well, it ‘normalises’ the situation in Dagestan, just as Terek Grozny's ongoing presence in the top flight supposedly makes Chechnya a more palatable place. Decentralisation, reaching out to the regions, has been a cornerstone of Putin's policy in all spheres (its success in football is seen in the fact that none of the last four champions have been from Moscow).

The issue of funding is a tricky one. Moscow pumps millions of pounds each year into developing the Caucasian region. If some of that money ends up being used to fund football clubs, it's little wonder that fans from Moscow feel aggrieved: why should their taxes indirectly subsidise Eto'o's wages? Kerimov, after all, didn't buy Anzhi; rather he was given it by the president of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, in exchange for a promise of £120m of investment in infrastructure, including a new 40,000-capacity stadium. […]

This is not the first time, however, the oligarchs have delved into the sports world. Mr. Wilson reminded readers that in 1999, Mr. Kerimov entered into a business arrangement with fellow oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska:

[…] The three became notorious for their aggressive takeovers. Abramovich, of course, as well as buying Chelsea, funds the Russian state youth academy at Togliatti, as well as contributing to funds to pay for the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup. Deripaska, who has been linked with takeovers of Arsenal and West Bromwich although his representatives have always denied any links with any UK football clubs, was a part-owner of Kuban Krasnodar until 2008. […]

The FC Anzhi venture is unique, however, in that the region is simply so volatile. Writing for a blog associated with Time Magazine in September 2011, Ishaan Tharoor quoted a Washington Post article to describe this volatility:

[…] Police have killed 100 people they identified as rebels since the beginning of the year, Interior Ministry officials said in June, and human rights activists accuse police of killing first and then finding a crime to assign to the body.

Local journalists estimate that 1,000 to 1,500 armed men are in the forest at any one time, with perhaps 5,000 others prepared to join them. The forest shelters organized terrorism as well — the U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Doku Umarov, a Chechen terrorist with al-Qaeda connections suspected of hiding in Dagestan who has been accused of terrorist attacks on Moscow. […]

It has not yet been two decades since the brutal Chechen Wars of the 1990s. Mr. Tharoor later described an incident where a Russian FC Anzhi player was heckled when he stepped out to play for the Russian national team, due to his affiliation with FC Anzhi:

[…] Nor is the rest of Russia all that pleased with Anzhi's emergence. When recent Anzhi arrival Yuri Zhirkov, formerly of London's Chelsea, turned out for the Russian national team, he was booed savagely by his own country's fans. They were angry about the perceived political leg-up afforded to a number of North Caucasus sides — a sentiment likely tinged with longstanding prejudices against those from the Caucasus. […]

Tatyana Bokova-Foley wrote on Russia! blog about the Suleiman Kerimov Foundation, which was established in 2010 and has since donated about $60 million to charitable causes. She explained that the Foundation does a variety of good works in Dagestan, many of which are not intended to earn a profit:

[…] The Kerimov Foundation continues to work in the [Dagestan] region. At a meeting about Dagestan, Medvedev praised the installation of computers in all the region’s general education schools. At some schools this was financed by the foundation, which spent around $1 million on modern computers and the total reconstruction of three general education schools in Derbent. […]

Kerimov is directly involved in the foundation’s operations, and uses his business skills to ensure it meets its goals, even if those goals are not to make money but to help people. Experts say that it is a model for the most effective nonprofits in Russia and the world.

In February 2011, FC Anzhi acquired the Brazilian World Cup champion Roberto Carlos as well as Jucilei da Silva. Moroccan Mbark Boussoufa was then signed in March. This summer, however, marked a truly defining moment for FC Anzhi when it signed Cameroonian phenomenon, Samuel Eto'o, who is considered to be one of the very best strikers in the world – as well as the highest paid.

Roberto Carlos of Anzhi (R) vies for the ball with Roman Shirokov of Zenit (L) during Russian Premier League match between FC Zenit St. Petersburg and FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Photo by Mike Kireev, copyright © Demotix (21/03/2011).

Roberto Carlos of Anzhi (R) vies for the ball with Roman Shirokov of Zenit (L) during Russian Premier League match between FC Zenit St. Petersburg and FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Photo by Mike Kireev, copyright © Demotix (21/03/2011).

Soccer Village Blog described Mr. Kerimov's commitment to recruit world class talent in an October 2011 post:

[…] Roberto Carlos himself was in fact the club's first high profile signing when he joined back in February as a player.  Following the sacking of their coach, Gadzhi Gadzhiyev, in September Carlos was installed as joint caretaker manager.  The 2002 World Cup winner spoke further about Kerimov and stated quite matter of factly that the billionaire owner will continue to aggressively pursue more top international players.  He said: If Real, Barcelona or Manchester United cannot pay the transfer fee, we will pay it. Suleyman Kerimov can offer what he wants.’ […]

The post also mentioned that none of the FC Anzhi players live in the region. Instead they live over 1,000 miles away near Moscow and must commute at least 15 times per year in order to play their home games.

The official FC Anzhi Facebook page, which now has over 10,000 followers, posted a link to a Russian language article, which described the plane they use to travel. The article mentioned that former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was once a patron of that same plane. Two comments just below this article express contrasting views of Mr. Eto'o's decision to move to Russia:

Ewodo Dominic:

samuel eto'o always makes the difference everywhere he goes. He is the best footballer the world!

Ian Mellor:

what an idiot to go to Russia to waste his talent

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