The story of FC Anzhi Makhachkala’s semi-rise and dramatic fall is one of the most bizarre tales in football.
Before 2011 the club’s 20-year history consisted of a Russian Cup final defeat in 2001 and not much else.
Then, out of nowhere, one of the most successful businessman in Russia was made the club’s sole owner after promises of huge investment.
Fans believed that Suleyman Kerimov would lead a revolution similar to Roman Abramovich’s takeover at Chelsea.
And for a while it looked as if they would conquer the world…
Start with a legend
The signing of Roberto Carlos sent shock waves across Europe.
Sure the legendary left-back was 37-years-old but he was a three-time Champions League winner, a World Cup winner, and one of the most recognisable figures in world football.
Carlos was named captain and operated in defensive midfield but more importantly he attracted global interest to a club previously unknown outside Russia.
Fellow Brazilian international Jucilei followed Carlos’ lead, joining from Corinthians in the winter transfer window and the foundations were laid.
In the summer, Yuri Zhirkov, one of the national team’s star players, signed from Chelsea for approximately €15million.
Again, this move was as much about turning heads than it was securing the services of a quality player.
Then came the big one…
The biggest signal of intent came in August of 2011 when Anzhi confirmed the signing of Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for nearly €30million.
The Cameroon international had long been recognised as one of the best finishers in the world and the mere sight of him shaking hands with the club’s officials was enough to strike fear into the hearts of defenders across Russia.
Signing his name at the bottom of the contract made Eto’o the highest paid player in the world on an eye-watering €21million-a-year.
Now for a suitable manager
Few managers commanded more respect in Russia than Guus Hiddink and so that’s who Anzhi hired in February 2012.
Only the best would do.
The former Real Madrid, PSV and Netherlands gaffer became the best paid manager in the world, earning €10million-a-year.
This appointment, plus the signing of Blackburn defender Chris Samba, continued the club’s rise up the ranks.
Here come the cavalry
Further recruits included Lassana Diarra from Real Madrid, Ivory Coast wonderkid Lacina Traore and one of Europe’s most highly-rated midfielders by the name of Willian.
By now the squad contained enough names to sell thousands of shirts across the globe and enough talent to win trophies.
Progress didn’t arrive quick enough for Kerimov.
Anzhi finished third in the league in 2012/13, a season in which Hiddink resigned due to a number of factors.
They lost to CSKA Moscow in the Russian Cup final and were knocked out of the Europa League by Newcastle having beaten Liverpool 1-0 in the group stages.
The bottom fell out of Anzhi so quickly it was almost impossible to keep track of each depressing development.
Firstly, former Clasico rivals Eto’o and Carlos fell out after the latter took exception to the former’s demand for backroom control.
The Brazilian announced his retirement from football (which turned out to be temporary once Delhi Dynamos came knocking in 2015) around six months before Hiddink jumped ship.
On 7 August 2013, Kerimov made the drastic decision to sever Anzhi’s finances by two-thirds.
The gravy train had come to a grinding halt.
This cutback surprised fans, players and club staff, all of whom believed the ultimate goal remained global domination funded by Kerimov’s millions.
The change of tact resulted in one of the most farcical transfer sagas in history.
Aleksandr Kokorin, the golden boy of Russian football, was sold back to Dynamo Moscow just weeks after signing for Anzhi and having not played a single minute for his new club.
The deal also included Zhirkov and Igor Denisov (who had also only joined a month previous) as all of Anzhi’s players were put up for sale.
There are many theories as to why Kerimov pulled the plug on the Russian Galactico project.
Some say his health deterioration required him to absolve himself of the stress caused by running a super ambitious football club.
Others thought he was simply ‘cashing out’ having invested too much money into the club without the reward of a trophy.
Whatever the case, the clearout resulted in the departure of Willian, Eto’o, etc and Anzhi finished bottom of the league in 2013/14 and were relegated with just 20 points to their name.
Doomed to fail?
Even with the money injection and superstar names, there were problems surrounding Anzhi from the off.
Because they were based in Makhachkala, the capital city of the Republic of Dagestan, a location in a state of near-constant instability during that time, the team were forced to train in Moscow, over 1,000 miles away.
This meant that the team needed to fly to their ‘home’ games every other week.
The club were also the subject of hate, specifically ethnic and religious animosity, with the majority of their fans hailing from the Northern Caucasian region of Russia.
Star players Eto’o, Willian and Samba also suffered racist abuse during their time in Russia, evidence that the country was sadly inhospitable to a club keen on assembling a diverse range of talented players.
Not to mention the fact the cold conditions were torture for some foreign players.
These days Anzhi are back in the Premier League but far closer to the drop than to glory.
Fans must look back at the days they had the world’s highest paid manager and the world’s highest paid player in their ranks and wonder what might have been.
There’s no telling what kind of squad they could have assembled by now…