Liverpool ready to welcome world's strangest club
Liverpool’s opponents tonight are bankrolled by a secretive billionaire, pay star players up to £350k a week – but have to travel 1,200 kilometres for a home game, as Tim Rich reports
For the men who arrived at John Lennon Airport yesterday, the question was obvious. What first attracted you to Dagestan with its corruption, ethnic violence and multi-million dollar contracts?
Anzhi Makhachkala might fairly claim to be the strangest football club in the world. Its players live 2,000 kilometres from where they play. They visit the city their team is supposed to promote only on match days and under suffocating security. They compete for the championship of a country a large section of Dagestan's population want to leave. They are among the highest-paid sportsmen on the planet.
One of Lennon's most famous lines is "imagine no possessions." Samuel Eto'o, Anzhi's marquee signing, would have to try very, very hard to do that. He earns £350,000 a week and his penthouse in Moscow boasts a three-metre wide television screen.
Although the salaries paid by Suleiman Kerimov, a secretive billionaire who lost a reported $14 billion in the financial crash that brought down Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, are enormous, nobody at Anzhi talks about money.
When Lassana Diarra signed from Real Madrid, he claimed it was because he wanted to be near Eto'o "my big brother." Roberto Carlos, who was paid £5m a year, talked of "a great adventure."
Eto'o wanted to be "a unifying force" in a nation plagued by internecine strife, 13 ethnic groups and 30 languages.
For his 38th birthday Kerimov presented Roberto Carlos with a Bugatti Veyron which he shipped straight back to Brazil.
The irony of parking a car worth £800,000 in the ravaged streets of Makhachkala, where the average wage is £156 a month, would have been too much.
Not that the Bugatti would have gone anywhere near Dagestan.
Anzhi's squad train and live in Kratovo, a village on the outskirts of Moscow, where Sergei Prokofiev, who composed Peter and the Wolf, had his dacha (home).
Their home games in the Europa League will be staged in Moscow's Lokomotiv Stadium, an impossibly arduous round trip for their fans, even in a Bugatti Veyron.
After his spells with Chelsea and the Russian national side, Guus Hiddink can fairly claim to be the oligarch's manager of choice.
After failing to qualify first Russia and then Turkey for the last two major international tournaments, it seemed the Hiddink brand was on the wane.
This morning, this hitherto unknown club is top of the Russian league. The views from the Moscow penthouse he acquired when working for Roman Abramovich must be especially sumptuous.
Behind them in third, is another club from the bloodstained Caucasus, Terek Grozny, run by the Cechen warlord, Razman Kadyrov.
Kerimov is a very different kind of oligarch, using cool intelligence, rather than Kalashnikovs, to make his point.
'The Financial Times' Moscow correspondent, Catherine Belton, one of very few to have been given access, found the 46-year-old, who often dresses in jeans and a sweater, "charming and sometimes modest," wearing thin, skin-coloured fingerless gloves, the result of suffering grievous burns six years ago after losing control of his black Ferrari Enzo on a snow-covered Promenade des Anglais in Nice.
The South of France was a natural habitat for a man described as a "Russian Gatsby."
Like Gatsby, he had risen from nowhere. Twenty years ago he had been employed as an economist for a company making transistors for televisions. By the time of the crash of 2008, he was said to be worth $17.5 billion.
He would throw the kind of parties Scott Fitzgerald would recognise. Beyonce entertained his guests at Cap d'Antibes. Amy Winehouse was once flown to Moscow to sing at an event that cost £6m.
And yet his accident seemed to have triggered a desire to rebuild Dagestan and tie it to the motherland.
Anzhi Makhachkala is part of this and there are some who claim that the funds for its new stadium and football academies are funnelled directly from the Kremlin. In retaliation, some Muslims have founded their own breakaway league.
What is Anzhi's home, until the opening of a new 45,000-seater arena, is a frankly shabby affair.
Outside the roads are potholed, the stands are largely open and the walls peeling and graffiti strewn. The capacity is a mere 16,100 and the catering facilities do not extend much beyond packs of sunflower seeds.
Soon it will be history. Liverpool and all the other great clubs of Europe will never visit it. However, it has been the strange repository for some stranger dreams. (© Independent News Service)
Liverpool v Anzhi Makhachkala
Live, Setanta Sports 1, 8.05