Most of us care little about domestic football in Russia. But when one club signed international stars including Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o, things got decidedly interesting.
If you want a good example of the butterfly effect in football, look no further than Anzhi Makhachkala, a Russian club based in the Republic of Dagestan, almost causing Yaya Toure to leave Manchester City in 2014.
How did it happen? Did the Russian club lodge a bid for the Ivorian midfielder? Did they secretly tap him up from afar?
No and no.
Instead, Anzhi’s billionaire owner Suleyman Kerimov simply bought a Bugatti Veyron, a car worth around £1million, for club captain Roberto Carlos — yes, that Roberto Carlos — on his 38th birthday. In 2011.
Three years later, that tiny flapping of very expensive wings caused a tornado in Manchester, as Man City failed to appropriately recognise Yaya Toure on his birthday.
“He got a cake,” admitted Dimitry Seluk, Toure’s notoriously difficult agent. “But when it was Roberto Carlos’s birthday, the president of Anzhi gave him a Bugatti.
“I don’t expect City to present Yaya with a Bugatti, we only asked that they shook his hand and said ‘we congratulate you’. It is the minimum they must do when it is his birthday and the squad is all together.”
The weird goings-on at Anzhi Makhachkala were having a wider impact than anyone might have expected.
But with the Russian club’s footballing experiment creating shockwaves all the way over in Manchester, just imagine how strange things were in Dagestan…
Anzhi Makhachkala went into the 2011-12 Russian Premier League season having just finished 11th. The season before that, they had been promoted from the second tier.
But if the club and its fans had been planning for steady consolidation of their position, they were in for quite a shock.
On January 18, 2011, Suleyman Kerimov, a Dagestan-born billionaire with a fortune accrued from oil, banking and fertiliser deals, took over the obscure Russian club with the promise of investing millions.
It didn’t take long for him to make good on that promise. However, the club’s early purchases appeared to be motivated by promotional reasons more than footballing ones.
A 37-year-old Roberto Carlos, fresh from having his contract terminated at Corinthians, was brought in alongside three other Brazilians: defender João Carlos from Genk, forward Diego Tardelli from Atlético Mineiro, and highly-rated midfielder Jucilei, who had been playing alongside Roberto Carlos at Corinthians.
Moroccan midfielder Mbark Boussoufa was added on deadline day.
At first, the plan appeared to work: by June 10, 2011, Anzhi were second in the league, having just beaten Spartak Nalchik 2-0 at home. Roberto Carlos, slow but as robust as ever, had opened the scoring.
But as Anzhi attempted to take things to the next level, things began to go awry.
The 2011-12 season was a long one for the Russian Premier League — in a very literal sense: it ran from March 2011 to May 2012, with the country in the process of switching to an autumn-spring schedule in line with most European leagues.
Fittingly, that gave Anzhi a total of three transfer windows in which to splash the cash.
And splash they did, most vigorously in the summer window when they signed Cameroon legend Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for around £23.7million.
Some estimated his wages at around £170,000 per week, though most now believe they were more than double that, nearer £350,000.
Other summer signings included Yuri Zhirkov from Chelsea and Hungarian Balázs Dzsudzsák from PSV. Rather than sign old international stars like Roberto Carlos, the club were now putting together a squad capable of big things.
These big-money moves put the spotlight on Anzhi, but they didn’t have quite the impact that the club and Kerimov might have wanted.
Despite the appointment of Guus Hiddink and the signing of Blackburn’s Christopher Samba in the third and final transfer window, Anzhi finished the season fifth, Eto’o top scoring with 13 goals.
Europa League qualification was secured, but Kerimov was already spending Champions League money.
More new faces arrived ahead of the 2012-13 season, Ivorian striker Lacina Traoré and French midfielder Lassana Diarra the biggest names among them.
Roberto Carlos retired but, presumably with one eye on his 40th birthday, stuck around in a non-playing role.
Needless to say, the big-name signings came for the huge wages and little else.
But if the idea of living in the poor and occasionally violent Republic of Dagestan might have dissuaded some players from signing, there was a neat workaround: they didn’t have to.
Instead of living and training in Makhachkala, the squad of superstars stayed in Moscow, only making the 1,200-mile flight to Dagestan for home matches.
It was a footballing arrangement like no other and, at the start of the 2012-13 season at least, it seemed to be working. A run of seven successive victories saw Anzhi top of the league for most of October, with both Eto’o and Traoré in great form.
The hot streak wouldn’t last.
A 4-0 thrashing at the hands of FC Krasnodar in March ended up being Anzhi’s worst result of the season, and three defeats in the last five matches saw the Dagestan club finish third, again missing out on the Champions League.
A Europa League run was ended by Newcastle in the round of 16.
Fifth. Third. Those of a glass-half-full mindset might have gone into the 2013-14 season thinking Anzhi were on course to win the league.
Unfortunately, the more significant omen for Anzhi came not on the football pitch but on the stock market: on July 30, a potash fertiliser producer in which Kerimov was invested saw its value shrink by around £5.5billion — roughly 5,500 Bugattis.
And with billionaire Kerimov having to tighten his purse strings, Anzhi were always going to be in the firing line.
So it proved.
New manager Rene Meulensteen was sacked after just 16 days in charge, and the club announced it would be reducing its overall budget by two thirds. That prompted a huge sale of playing staff, with 21 senior players promptly axed, some of whom had only recently signed.
The departed included Eto’o, Diarra, Samba, Boussoufa and €35million signing Willian, as well as Russian stars like Zhirkov, Igor Denisov and Aleksandr Kokorin.
Of the club’s big international players, only Jucilei and Traoré lasted until the following transfer window.
The club finished 16th and were relegated, with no player in the Anzhi squad scoring more than two goals that season.
Anzhi’s post-riches years have, in their own way, also been dramatic. The club went back up to the Russian Premier League at the first attempt in 2014-15, their squad of predominantly Russian players finishing second in the National Football League.
The following season, the club finished 13th to maintain their top-flight status. In the middle of it, on December 26, 2016, Kerimov eventually sold up.
Anzhi lasted another season in the Premier League before being relegated just two weeks ago in a play-off match versus FC Yenisey Krasnoyarsk.
Their top scorer for the season, Argentine forward Juan Lescano, had been signed in July 2017 for £350,000 — a week’s worth of Samuel Eto’o.
How things change.