Anzhi’s rise and fall from Samuel Eto’o and Willian to relegation and disbandment
Barely a decade after throwing money at superstars such as Samuel Eto’o and Willian, Anzhi Makachkala has been disbanded and will no longer play a role in Russian football.
Image: Mike Kireev/Epsilon/Getty Images)
While many clubs have fired on Europe’s big boys with rampant spending, few have seen rises and falls as dramatic as Anzhi Makachkala.
The Dagestan side had never played in major European competition until the turn of the 20th century, but a rocky start in the 2010s saw them attract big names with bigger salaries. Barely a decade into their rise, the club is no more.
Anzhi spent last season in Russia’s third tier, finishing a distant ninth as neighbors Dynamo Makachkala won promotion. However, after failing to obtain a license for the 2022-23 campaign, the club is disbanded. It’s a sad end for a team that once boasted star names such as Roberto Carlos, Samuel Eto’o and Willian when times were good.
Anzhi got his first taste of European football against Rangers in the 2001-02 UEFA Cup, but it took a takeover in 2011 for things to change dramatically. Billionaire Suleyman Kerimov was the man at the helm and he oversaw big games that brought unlikely names to Dagestan.
Former Russian manager Guus Hiddink was appointed midway through the 2011-12 season, and the Dutchman arrived with an exciting squad at his disposal. Roberto Carlos and fellow Brazil international Diego Tardelli had joined the side ahead of the campaign, while the team also added Chelsea and Russian star Yuri Zhirkov before announcing the signing of Eto’o just a year after his triumph in the Champions League with Inter Milan.
Eto’o’s gesture was a real statement. Indeed, his £344,000-a-week contract made him the highest-paid player in the world at the time. Naturally, the world waited to see what was next.
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“I’m happy that more players are considering coming,” said the Cameroonian star during his first season in Russia. “A lot of them are important players and they have been linked with clubs here.
“This is a big victory for Anzhi and the club gives Russian football an opportunity to attract stars. I have to tell you that almost every day I receive a message or a phone call from a top player who wonders if there are opportunities to come here, because the truth is that the future of football is in Russia.”
Sure enough, Christopher Samba joined a few months later after impressing for Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League, while the following season – after securing European qualification – Anzhi added Real Madrid’s Lassana Diarra, Shakhtar star Willian and the Ivorian striker Lacina Traoré, the latter fresh off an 18-goal season in Russia with Kuban Krasnodar.
Nine wins in the first 12 games of the 2012–13 season saw Anzhi sit at the top of the standings, but they eventually fell and finished third. Rather than relying on the relative upside momentum, however, they would soon begin their slide.
Hiddink was the first to go, walking away after a poor start to the 2013-14 campaign. New signings including Igor Denisov and Aleksandr Kokorin failed to measure up, and the latter would eventually leave without playing a single game as financial pressure began to hit.
Anzhi took the drastic step of putting all their big earners on sale just weeks after the start of the season. Willian – a £30million arrival a few months earlier – was the most high-profile and in-demand, but he was by no means the only star packing his bags.
“After analyzing the latest sporting achievements of the club following the results of the past period, the administration of Anzhi has taken the decision to draw up the new long-term development strategy of the club,” reads a statement. club statement in August 2013. “The new program aims to gain success in all subdivisions of the club without time limit
“The changes to the club’s budget are caused by up-to-date requirements from UEFA and linked to the club’s obligation to comply with financial fair play but, at the same time, they will not lead to considerable distortions in the life of the team and in the current structure of our club as a whole.” That last point, however, seemed to be way off the mark within weeks.
Chelsea won the race for Willian, despite former Blues boss Andre Villas-Boas trying to take him to Tottenham. Eto’o followed suit, while Traore and Mehdi Carcela also won trips elsewhere in Europe.
Most of the sales, however, were to other Russian clubs. Dynamo Moscow were perhaps the biggest beneficiary, moving in for Kokorin, Denisov and Zhirkov within days. They also added Samba towards the end of the window, as Diarra headed for Lokomotiv Moscow.
Under new manager Gadzhi Gadzhiyev, Anzhi finished bottom. However, after winning a promotion at the first request, they were able to obtain a temporary stay of execution at the highest level in Russia.
However, anyone who thought this would be the start of a glorious comeback was way off target. After surviving their debut season with victory in the relegation play-off and staying afloat on their head-to-head record the following year, they suffered relegation in 2018 that had seemed long in coming.
At this point, foreign stars were a thing of the past. The bulk of the squad was Russian, with Argentine striker Juan Lescano the only South American significantly involved as Anzhi fell to Yenisey Krasnoyarsk in the relegation play-off, but the breakup of two rivals saw them a reprieve.
Even that was only temporary, however, with six losses in the first seven games of the season setting the tone. There was no turning back this time, and Anzhi started the next part of their decline.
In truth, the financial problems that started when their wealthy backers left were always likely to remain a problem. For years they found themselves treading water down the Russian Premier League, and eventual relegation in 2019 saw them drop not one but two divisions as they failed to secure a license to play at the second level.
The 2022-23 season appears to be starting without Anzhi’s name anywhere in the Russian football pyramid. Those brief glory years will seem recent to those who have watched from afar, but for those involved in recent years, it might be a little less surprising.