A chequebook alone does not a football club make. Just ask FC Anzhi Makhachkala.
Though you would be forgiven for thinking that if you glance at the football league tables across Europe. The richest clubs in each league, with few exceptions, sit at the top. Chelsea and Manchester City in England, PSG (Paris Saint-Germain) in France and RasenBallsport Leipzig in Germany are all funded by billionaire owners. Other teams such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich have accumulated great wealth thanks to their storied past, consistent success and eye-watering, billion-dollar broadcasting deals that guarantee high incomes even when performance on the football pitch is indifferent.
Fifteen of the 16 teams to go into the knockout stages of the Champions League this season are the richest. Only Tottenham Hotspurs failed to live up to their balance sheet. Money can seem to be the major, if not sole, criterion in determining the success of teams. Money can buy you the best players and the finest managers. There is just one problem with money though: It sometimes runs out.
In January 2011, things at FC Anzhi Makhachkala looked promising. The club in the Russian Premier League had just been bought by Suleyman Kerimov, a Russian businessman from the club’s home republic of Dagestan. Kerimov promised to spend $200 million (about Rs1,300 crore) on infrastructure and another $30-50 million on annual wages for players and staff. It was a big deal for the club and for Dagestan. Anzhi had spent the better part of its life, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, playing in the second tier of Russian football, with brief sojourns in the premier league. Kerimov hoped to change the trajectory of the club’s fortunes and propel it to national and continental success.
The levels of commitment and ambition must have baffled some locals. After all, Makhachkala was a tiny city of around half a million. Besides, Dagestan then, as now, was grappling with an Islamist insurgency chiefly led by the Shariat Jamaat group against a quietist, secular Sufi mainstream. But it still was a sign of the times in Russian football. Millions of dollars were pouring into teams. Russian football journalist Sasha Goryunov told Mint, on email, that there wasn’t enough commercial or public interest to make Russian football financially sustainable. “There was no other way for a club like Anzhi to grow. Someone like Kerimov had to pump in millions of dollars,” Goryunov says.
Flush with funds, Kerimov’s Anzhi swooped on the 2011 winter transfer window. Chief among the new hires were four Brazilians, including Roberto Carlos on a free transfer but astronomical wages, and a Morocccan, Mbark Boussoufa, from Belgium.
Kerimov’s, and Anzhi’s, appetite for talent did not cease. In the summer transfer window later that year, the club brought in the player perhaps most emblematic of its profligate years: Samuel Eto’o. The club spent €28 million (about Rs200 crore) to buy the Cameroonian from Inter Milan. Eto’o would be paid €23.5 million a year in wages.
In February 2012, a year after his acquisition, Kerimov seemed to have capped a year of explosive investment by hiring dependable Dutchman Guus Hiddink as manager. Player acquisitions continued under Hiddink’s watch.
On the football field, the returns on these investments were solid. Anzhi came fifth in the 2011-12 Russian Premier League season, and went on to get knocked out in the Round of 16 in the Europa League. The next season they came third in Russia, and got knocked out again at the same stage in the same competition in Europe. By the summer of 2013, according to Louise Taylor of The Guardian, Anzhi were forking out an annual wage bill of £116 million (about Rs930 crore). By then, FC Anzhi were beginning to appear at least on the periphery of European football, not an inconsiderable achievement for what was once a small, middling Dagestani football club.
And then something happened. Or many things happened. The effect of all these events on the club was fatal. Kerimov lost interest. Goryunov lists a number of reasons that have been bandied about for the decisions that followed: Kerimov’s health was failing, Dagestani politics had seen changes, and the breaking up of a potash price-fixing cartel in Belarus had wiped billions from his wealth. The Guardian’s Taylor also says that Kerimov’s unhappiness with the club was compounded by Hiddink’s departure in July 2013. His assistant Rene Meulensteen took over and was booted out in just 16 days. After two years of pumping in millions of dollars, Kerimov had had enough. He asked the club to clear up the wage bill and get rid of their expensive players. Eto’o and Willian were both sold to Chelsea. By the closing of the summer transfer window in 2013, Anzhi’s annual wage bill had been brought down to £40 million.
In the 2013-14 Russian Premier League season, FC Anzhi, third-place finishers the year before, finished last with just three wins and 20 points. It was among the worst performances in Europe that season. They were relegated to the second tier, bounced back again immediately, and then ended the 2015-16 season in 13th place, staying up by a whisker after winning the relegation play-offs. Just over halfway through this season, they sit in 11th place. The club is a shadow of what it was for two glorious seasons six years ago.
Finally, in December, Kerimov pulled the plug on his foundering investment. Having spent at least half a billion euros on it, Kerimov sold the club to local businessman Osman Kadiev (who himself has a colourful history with the law and football, to put it mildly).
In Russia, Goryunov says, football fans merely shrug at the turn of events. What options do clubs have? “Teams in Russia generally rely on either the local budget or a wealthy benefactor.” So there is really no alternative but to depend on the largesse of an investor such as Kerimov, Goryunov explains.
The politics and economics of club football may not be quite the same in China or Leipzig or Bengaluru as they are in Dagestan. But if your team depends on the largesse of a sugar daddy then there is at least one lesson you can learn from the rise and fall of FC Anzhi Makhachkala: Your sugar daddy better not run out of patience, money or interest.