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Soccer politics: Anzhi Makhachkala and the dangers of Dagestan

Sep 3, 2013, 6:18 PM EDT

Suleiman Kerimov AP

Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala’s fortunes continued to deteriorate on Monday after authorities in Belarus issued a warrant for its owner’s arrest. Suleyman Kerimov, who is also the majority shareholder and co-owner of Uralkali, a Moscow-based potash company, is under investigation for corruption.

Kerimov lost a reported $375 million when Uralkali’s stock plummeted in August, prompting him to put every potentially lucrative player on the squad up for sale and decrease the team’s budget by $50 to $70 million a year. The club’s two biggest names, Samuel Eto’o and Willian, both joined fellow Russian-tycoon-turned-soccer-owner Roman Abramovich at Chelsea.

Officials in Belarus have now put Kerimov on Interpol’s most wanted list, after Uralkali CEO Vladislav Baumgertner was charged and detained in Belarus in late August. Russian news agency RT reported that Baumgertner is currently being held at a KGB jail in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, possibly in solitary confinement.

Relations between Russia and Belarus have been strained since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the Uralkali situation acting as another flash point.

As with most clubs and countries in Eastern Europe, to understand the politics of soccer, understanding the machinations of government is vital. Particularly in former Soviet spaces, the two have always been and will likely always be intertwined.

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The location of Makhachkala and the region of Dagestan (in red) on a map. (Source: Google Maps)

Kerimov took over Anzhi in January 2011, investing heavily to turn it into one of Europe’s superclubs before the recent reversal. Many fans in the area saw the club as a constructed distraction from the civil war in the Dagestan region, a conflict that has hampered Anzhi’s efforts to play home matches this year.

The team lives and trains just outside Moscow and flies to home games in Makhachkala under heavy guard, and in June, UEFA banned all competitive matches in continental competitions from taking place in Dagestan during the 2013/14 season. In the 2001/02 UEFA Cup, Anzhi had to play Rangers FC of Scotland in Warsaw, Poland, because of the unstable situation in neighboring Chechnya.

Now, that situation has shifted slightly east.

The region of Dagestan hit headlines in the United States after the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line. The two suspects in the attack lived briefly in Dagestan before coming to the U.S.

While Anzhi Makhachkala club officials have claimed that soccer can change the situation in Dagestan, many others in the region say the club’s exploits are meant to be a diversion from the widespread unemployment, corruption and sheer poverty of the area.

Some suspect that Kerimov’s heavy initial investment was nothing more than a public-relations scheme from the Kremlin to purify the area’s image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just 600 miles away from Makhachkala by road on the Black Sea coast. Two years ago, the BBC declared Dagestan “the most dangerous place in Europe,” citing the almost-daily bombings, shootouts and perpetual ruin.

As far as distractions go, Anzhi’s fortunes since Kerimov bought the club have proven useful. Top-five league finishes, deep runs in the Russian Cup and a Round of 16 appearance in the Europa League represented the club’s two best seasons in the top division since Anzhi’s inception in 1991.

But with Kerimov taking a public step back from the club and his recent off-field business troubles coming to light, the distraction may be over, despite a draw in the 2013/14 Europa League that includes Tottenham Hotspur.

Just as the music stops and the lights come back on at the end of a long night out, the party seems to be over in Makhachkala. And the situation outside is nothing to celebrate.

  1. takethelongview - Sep 4, 2013 at 12:28 AM

    Liviu Bird, of all the writers on this site, you have a knack for ferreting out the most fascinating angles into soccer stories…at least, when not relegated to the repetitive merry-go-round of EPL coverage. It’s a wide world out there…keep covering the whole thing.

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