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A Kick Where It Helps
Friday, 16 December 2011 18:39
A high-flying soccer player with a $30-million price tag brings pleasure and a kick of hope to Dagestan's capital city. 


Tarlan Bakhishev, 14, has waited six hours with his friends to get a ticket to see his local soccer team, Anzhi Makhachkala. The teenagers are bubbling with excitement as they watch a training session. Somewhere out on the pitch is a Cameroonian who just put Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, on the European football map. 

In one corner of the stadium, a few dozen fans perform their evening salah, the Muslim prayer, and thousands more anticipate the arrival of their latest star -- striker Samuel Eto'o, formerly of Inter Milan. 

Eto'o has signed with a club that one year ago couldn't attract top Russian talent, let alone the world's best players. But this two-time European Cup champion joined the Russian football club this fall on a three-year contract for a reported $30 million a year in wages.

It's nothing unusual for a lowly club to go from nowhere to attracting the best in European soccer in an instant. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich transformed English club Chelsea after buying them in 2003. Manchester City is basking in the cash of the Abhu Dhabi United Group -- and their recent thrashing of cross-town rival Manchester United. 

Anzhi, it turns out, is more than a club with a stack of cash. 

The club is in Makhachkala, which is in Russia's Northern Caucasus. The region is the site of an intense and long-running conflict between authorities and Islamic extremists, which has seen almost daily attacks. On the day Eto'o walked out onto the home ground for the first time, five people died in a series of attacks. 

That was hardly an extraordinary day for the republic. Hundreds of policeman are killed each year in the republic of 2.6 million people. 

That is why the players and their families are not living in the city, instead flying down for each game from Moscow. Yet Eto'o has dismissed any security concerns. 

"Plenty of people will be looking out for my security, and if I took this decision it's because I don't consider that my life or that of my family are in any danger," he wrote on his Web site. "I'll travel there on the day of the match or the eve of the match and then I'll go back to Moscow." 

After he was presented to fans, Eto'o -- a smooth media operator who is adept at saying very little -- avoided questions about the dangers of Dagestan. 

However, a few days before the opening press conference in September, the entire hockey club Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was killed when a Yak-42 crashed. Eto'o led a moment of silence for those who had died.

Journalists who were flown down in a Yak-42 asked Eto'o at the time if he was worried about traveling to games in Russia. 

"When we sit in a plane, I always give my life up to God. It doesn't matter whether it is a Cameroonian, Spanish or Italian airline," he said.

Club general director German Chistyakov insisted the city was safe, but did admit that he had a different image of the republic before he first arrived. "I thought that there is practically a war going on here, that tracer bullets fly and you have to crawl when you move about," he told Russian news agency Ria Novosti.

The money for Eto'o and the other players all comes from one man, Suleiman Kerimov, a Dagestani, and one of the more reclusive oligarchs even though he has been a Duma minister and currently sits in the Russian upper house. "Kerimov doesn't give interviews, he speaks to Dagestani people through the football club," said Enver Kisriyev, head of the Caucasus section at an academic think tank in Moscow.

Forbes magazine estimated that Kerimov is worth nearly $8 billion made through clever investments in the 1990s. He now owns one of the country's biggest gold producers, but has managed to remain out of the limelight except for when he crashed his Ferrari Enzo into a tree in Nice in 2006. 

He was seriously injured and needed months of recovery. His passenger, Russian TV host Tina Kandelaki, was luckier but still suffered burns. 

Judging by the reception for Eto'o, the club can do no wrong in Dagestan. Close to 8,000 packed into the stadium just to see a training session, and more than a dozen children ran onto the playing field to try to reach and touch Eto'o. At one point, a local Cameroonian student, who is studying medicine in Makhachkala, also ran out and dove to kiss Eto'o's feet. 

Dagestan is one of the poorest republics in Russia with at least 40 percent unemployment. Club officials and Kisriyev said that Kerimov's aim is to give young people another way out, away from the route to extremism. As part of the project, the club will set up seven different football centers for youths in Dagestan, bring in quality football trainers and build a new stadium.

"People are laughing, being ironic [about the project], but you have to understand the social aspect," Kisriyev said. "I'm not saying it is a panacea and that it will get rid of Dagestan's many problems, but it will create some kind of positive movement."

Kerimov tried to take control of the club for at least three years, Kisriyev said, but it was only possible when a new and proactive Dagestan president, Magomedsalam Magomedov, came in. 

Relations between the club and the president remain close -- support of a high ranking official helps soothe the problems in an often dysfunctional republic. 

"You just need to ring him," said Chistyakov about Magomedov. "Even if it is not such a serious question like the selling of water at the stadium. He always listens and tried to help when [activists] and the police do not understand each other."

Few took the club seriously at first, even after they bought Roberto Carlos, the former Brazilan international who won the World Cup in 2002, in August. He's 38 and the assumption was that he wanted one last pay day. 

But the arrival of Eto'o has changed all that.

He is in the prime of his career, and his arrival could attract other great players. The club sacked its Russian manager and has been linked to the world's top coaches, such as Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid, and top players.

"There has never been anything like this in Russian football," said Bogdanov, the football editor at daily newspaper Sport Express. "Anything is possible if the investors are patient and invest in infrastructure."

The club, which is in 8th place, entered its winter break on Nov. 6, before the second part of the season, which will see them fighting to win a place in European competition. 

"It would be great to sign Christiano Ronaldo," Carlos told Spanish television, referring to the Real Madrid striker and one of the best-paid players in the world. Carlos said that he had been trying to persuade other stars to join him at Anzhi. "Our aim is to get Anzhi on the same level as Real [Madrid] and Barcelona." 

In figures 

-$30 million a year is the estimated salary of Samuel Eto'o in the Anzhi club. The three-year contract was signed this fall. Dagestan's youth clamor for Eto'o. 

Anzhi's big acquisitions: expensive but promising 

Balázs Dzsudzsák 
AGE: 24
Position: Midfielder

One of Hungary's most talented players, Dzsudzsak had a great career at PSV Eindhoven, so his decision to sign for Anzhi came as a surprise even to the executives of the Dutch club. Dzsudzsak could have moved to any top league. According to various sources, PSV got between $12 million to $19 million for the player's transfer. Dzsudzsak is currently undergoing treatment - so far he has played few matches in Russia because of an injury. 

Mbark Boussoufa
AGE: 27
Position: Midfielder 

Boussoufa played for Ajax and Chelsea and was several times named the best Belgian player. He almost signed for Terek Grozny, but the Chechen club failed to meet his salary demands. According to unofficial sources, Anzhi paid Anderlecht about $13 million for the Moroccan national team player and pays Boussoufa $3.3 mlllion a year. Boussoufa has become one of Anzhi's core players and has already scored four goals in the Russian Premier League. 

Jucilei da Silva 
AGE: 23
Position: Midfielder 

The 23-year-old midfielder played more than 100 matches for the Corinthians and even made it to the Brazilian national team. 

Anzhi paid about $13 million for him, according to estimates. Russian experts charge in the press that the player is worth only half of this. But the Brazilian player is still young, and, if things go well, Anzhi will be able to sell him to a European club at a significant premium. 

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