The Rise & Fall of FC Anzhi Makhachkala: The Russian Project Destined for Failure

Mitchell Wilks
FC Zenit St. Petersburg v FC Anzhi Makhachkala - Premier League
FC Zenit St. Petersburg v FC Anzhi Makhachkala - Premier League / Epsilon/Getty Images

Upon their inception in 1991, FC Anzhi Makhachkala had endured an up and down history which saw them float between the various divisions within Russian football.

After an eight-year absence, Anzhi finally returned to the Russian top flight in the 2010 season, playing in the Russian Premier League for the first time ever. It was a humble rise for a small city with little footballing history to brag about, but gave something for fans to be excited about nevertheless.

This excitement was kicked into overdrive, however, when local Russian billionaire Suleyman Kerimov acquired a 100% stake in his hometown club in 2011.

A picture taken on January 16, 2012 show
A picture taken on January 16, 2012 show / AFP/Getty Images

After Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain had both most recently become the latest two clubs to receive unrivalled financial support from new owners, the next in line for such an injection was Anzhi Makhachkala - a small Russian club that nobody in the footballing world had previously heard of, and for good reason.

Suddenly, Anzhi were the talk of the town. New owner Kerimov came armed and prepared as the 36th richest man in the world at the time, and immediately pumped money into the unknown Russian outfit, who sit over 1000 miles away from Moscow.

Kerimov quickly gained the trust and support of then-President of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magamedov, who gave him a 100% stake in the club. He vowed to invest hundreds of millions into the club's infrastructure, including the construction of a new stadium that would comply with UEFA ruling and in turn benefit the entire city of Makhachkala.

As well as local investment, Kerimov gave the club a war chest in the transfer market. In August 2011, Anzhi announced the signing of Inter striker Samuel Eto'o for a reported €28m, persuading him to join the club with an astronomical contract that was simply too good to turn down.

Eto'o immediately became the highest-paid footballer in the world, signing a deal worth €30m over three years.

FC Dynamo Moscow v FC Anzhi Makhachkala - Premier League
FC Dynamo Moscow v FC Anzhi Makhachkala - Premier League / Dmitry Korotayev/Getty Images

A number of other high-profile names headed to the conflicted republic of Dagestan to represent Anzhi. Chelsea's Yuri Zhirkov, Blackburn's Chris Samba and even legendary Brazilian Roberto Carlos joined the club in the following months, during the winter 2011 transfer window.

Managed by new head coach Guus Hiddink, who would join in February 2012, a new look Anzhi Makhachkala were suddenly one of football's most talked about names.

A fifth-placed finish in the 2011/12 season would be bettered upon the arrival of Hiddink, who took the side to an incredible third-placed finish in the 2012/13 campaign. Nosebleed territory for a club who were rooted in the second tier just a couple of seasons prior.

Roberto Carlos would retire not long after his arrival, but remained with the club as sporting director, which was vital as owner Kerimov invested more money into Anzhi's first ever youth academy set up, based in Dagestan.

UEFA Europa League Third Round Qualifier - Vitesse Arnhem v Anzhi Makhachkala
UEFA Europa League Third Round Qualifier - Vitesse Arnhem v Anzhi Makhachkala / VI-Images/Getty Images

Despite an impressive third place finish in the 2012/13 season that saw Anzhi catapult themselves into one of Europe's most intriguing football projects, the wheels fell off as quickly as they were attached.

Hiddink would resign in July 2013, and the 2013/14 season quickly turned into one big nightmare for fans.

Kerimov, seemingly overnight, began to pull all of his funding away from his hometown club ahead of the 2013/14 season. In the 2013 summer transfer window, Anzhi's first team squad was entirely dismantled as Kerimov sanctioned the sales of most high-profile players, doing anything to recoup any profits.

Yuri Zhirkov, Igor Denisov and Aleksandr Kokorin all left the club in a package deal to join Dynamo Moscow in August 2013. Denisov had only joined the club in June, while Kokorin had signed for Anzhi literally weeks before his sudden departure.

Samuel Eto'o and Willian were both sold to Premier League side Chelsea in that same transfer window, and the mass slaughter of the squad continued into the January 2014 window.

Chelsea v Liverpool - Premier League
Chelsea v Liverpool - Premier League / Julian Finney/Getty Images

Suddenly, a squad that had potential to defy all odds and break down footballing barriers had fallen flat on its face. Anzhi completed the 2013/14 campaign in dismal fashion, finishing last place with just three wins all season, and were subsequently relegated back into the Russian second tier.

Any hope that Anzhi fans, and residents of Makhachkala, had for the club were well and truly buried.

Anzhi would return to the top flight at the first time of asking, but several years of battling against relegation would eventually catch up on them in 2018, and they were dumped out of the Russian Premier League once more.

After the quickfire sales of 2014, Kerimov oversaw two more despairing years as owner, before selling the club in December 2016 to Osman Kadiyev.

Since their sale, Anzhi have plummeted further. They failed to obtain a license from the Russian Football Union ahead of the 2019/20 season, which meant they had the option of playing in the Russian third tier or declaring bankruptcy.

Anzhi chose the former, but due to the crippling financial situation they have been left in since the venture, they have been unable to register any new players as a result of outstanding debts. Senior players have since jumped ship and Anzhi rot in Russian third tier, fielding a team of Under-20s as they flirt with the prospect of being relegated to amateur level football.

Their story will forever remain an interesting one, and football fans across the globe will continue to wonder what could have been for Anzhi Makhachkala, but in reality, their backs were always against the wall.

Makhachkala is the capital city of the Republic of Dagestan, a deeply troubled subject of Russia that lies on the Caspian Sea.

Dagestan is the most ethnically diverse region in Russia, and has been subject to several conflicts in recent history, making it an incredible hostile place to live, certainly not one where a high-profile footballer would choose to reside.

Epsilon/Getty Images

As a result, the Anzhi squad were based in Moscow, where they would live, train and prepare for fixtures. The squad would fly into Makhachkala for home games, protected by large numbers of security, and leave immediately after on private buses.

Ultimately, this would prove to be an unsustainable model. This, combined with Kerimov's frustration at his financial losses due to inconsistencies on the pitch, resulted in Anzhi Makhachkala's rapid demise.

Suleyman Kerimov was, and remains, an incredibly private individual. Rumours suggested that his declining health was the reason for his sudden decision to lose interest in the club, but the writing was well and truly on the wall for Anzhi when the local billionaire had pulled out his money in the 2013/14 season.

Nine years on from the initial takeover, and four from the sale, the immensely fast rise and fall of Anzhi Makhachkala still haunts the club to this day. At this point, fans and figures at the club will simply hope that they can keep their head above the water for the foreseeable future, never mind get anywhere near the Russian Premier League anytime soon.