For the men who arrived at John Lennon Airport in Liverpool yesterday, the question was obvious. What first attracted you to Dagestan, with its corruption, ethnic violence and multimillion-dollar contracts?
Anzhi Makhachkala might fairly claim to be the strangest football club in the world. Their players live 1,200 miles from where they play; they visit the city their team is supposed to promote only on match days and under suffocating security. They compete for the championship of a country that a large section of Dagestan's population want to leave. They are among the highest-paid sportsmen on the planet.
Although the salaries paid by Suleyman Kerimov, a secretive billionaire, are enormous, nobody at Anzhi talks about money. When Lassana Diarra signed from Real Madrid, it was because he wanted to be near Samuel Eto'o – "my big brother". Roberto Carlos, who was paid £5m a year, talked of "a great adventure". Eto'o wanted to be "a unifying force". You yearn for the honesty of the Yorkshire fast bowler Paul Jarvis, who said his reason for joining Mike Gatting's ill-fated rebel tour of South Africa in 1990 was "to pay off my mortgage in one go".
This morning, as Anzhi prepare to face Liverpool at Anfield in the Europa League, this hitherto unknown club is top of the Russian league. Behind them in third is another club from the bloodstained Caucasus, Terek Grozny, run by the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Kerimov, said to be worth a mere $17.5bn at the time of the 2008 crash, is a very different kind of oligarch, using cool intelligence rather than Kalashnikovs to make his point.
The Financial Times' Moscow correspondent, Catherine Belton, one of very few to have been given access, found the 46-year-old "charming and sometimes modest", wearing thin, skin-coloured fingerless gloves, the result of grievous burns six years ago after losing control of his black Ferrari Enzo on snow in Nice.
Yet his accident seems to have triggered a desire to rebuild Dagestan and tie it to the Russian motherland. Anzhi's shabby home until their new 45,000-seater arena opens will soon be history. Liverpool and all the other great clubs of Europe will never visit it, but it has certainly been a theatre of dreams – strange dreams.Reuse content