Why Anzhi may be a better bet than Chelsea

Posted on August 28, 2011

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First featured in FT

The announcement by an obscure Russian club, Anzhi Makhachkala, to make Samuel Eto’o the world’s highest paid footballer (and by some estimates, the highest paid athlete in modern sport) will have most commentators lamenting that football is just a game of money-men and mercenaries.

But club owner, Suleiman Kerimov, has less in common with the archetypal football-investing Russian oligarch than appears at first glance. In choosing to pump an estimated $100m into his local side in the war-torn Caucasus he is in a different world from Chelsea and Roman Abramovich.

Football clubs have always attracted the sentimental investor. Kerimov, a life-long Anzhi fan who was born and studied in its shadow in the impoverished region of Dagestan, did not buy the club. He was ‘awarded’ ownership of Anzhi in January by Dagestan’s president in return for $200m investment in the club’s infrastructure.

Is this a better way for an oligarch to make his mark on the game than buying into the English Premier League?

Kerimov’s countryman, Roman Abramovich, revolutionised football investment and ownership with his $233m purchase of Chelsea in 2003,  spending hundreds of millions of pounds to transform a side of nearly-rans into one of Europe’s biggest clubs.

But, with the Premier League now awash with money, it’s a hard act to follow. Owners need ever more cash to make teams competitive, both in the transfer market and on the pitch. As they showed last season, even Chelsea are not guaranteed silverware anymore.

Potential big spenders will also be hamstrung by new UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations which are designed to limit the profligacy that has inflated transfer fees and wages in recent years.

All of this points towards Europe’s peripheral football leagues as a decent bet for oligarch money.

A club spokesman for Anzhi told the BBC that the team’s immediate aim was to qualify for the UEFA Champions League by 2012. This is a far more realistic goal for the Russian minnows – currently fourth in the Russian Premier League – than if Kerimov had used his roubles to buy a middling English club. It took Manchester City three years and almost £300m on players alone before they could qualify.

This is not to say that Kerimov’s bid to make Anzhi a global name is being welcomed by everyone in Russia. The high profile generated for the Caucasian region, most associated with insurgency and Islamism, has roused resentment in some of Russia’s Slavic heartlands.

An established rival club, Spartak Moscow, has already called for a boycott of the proverbial new kid on the block.  One of Anzhi’s other big signings – Russian Yuri Zhirkov, who was poached from Roman Abramovich at Chelsea for $19m – was also roundly jeered by Russian fans during a international friendly.

Kerimov may yet prove to be a trail-blazer but European clubs will continue be coveted by some of the mega-rich of the emerging world. Earlier this month, Malaysian-born Tony Fernandes added west-London club Queens Park Rangers to his growing porfolio of airlines, whilst Qatar Sport Investments, bought a 70 per cent stake in French side, Paris Saint Germain, in June.

The team from the North Caucasus will have to pay a premium – in transfer fees and wages – to attract superstar players and managers to Dagestan. But having  Eto’o in the squad will catalyse the process.

Suleiman Kerimov, whose personal wealth was estimated at $7.8bn by Forbes this year, has the satisfaction of building something on his home turf and giving something back to the conflict-ridden region of his birth, a move that will go down well with a Kremlin regime that is keen for Russia’s mega-rich to recycle their money in the country’s troubled peripheries.

And, who knows, Kerimov may yet see more success as Russia’s anti-Abramovich.

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Posted in: Chelsea, Football, Soccer