Billionaire bets on boys from Brazil to win peace in Dagestan

Shaun Walker reports from a land where football could be a matter of life and death

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The Independent Online

The floodlights are on, the stadium is packed, and the familiar stocky figure of Brazilian World Cup winner Roberto Carlos is galloping down the left wing. The strange thing about this scene is where it takes place – in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan. A chunk of mountainous land on the southern fringes of Russia, looking out on the Caspian Sea, in recent years Dagestan has been known mainly for its poverty and violence. The rumbling Islamic insurgency claims victims almost daily among policemen and government officials.

This year, however, a billionaire formerly from the region announced an investment plan to help tackle poverty and instability in the republic. The centrepiece of the plan is football. Suleiman Kerimov, a secretive businessmen with investments across many sectors, is the 118th richest man in the world according to Forbes magazine, with a fortune of $7.8bn (£4.8bn). His company last month promised to invest more than £900m in sports facilities and infrastructure projects in Dagestan, and the most visible investment to date is Makhachkala's football club, Anzhi.

Mr Kerimov took over Anzhi in January, promising major investment. The football world was stunned as Roberto Carlos, one of the most famous players in the world, signed up for the team; three more Brazilians and other big-name international players were also signed.

The tiny crowds at home games became full houses, with a scramble for tickets. A new 40,000-seat stadium is planned to be completed within four years, and will include a top training facility, restaurants, hotels and spas, says club spokesman Alexander Udaltsov. The goal is to qualify for Europe's top competition, the Champions League, within five years, and the team is already cementing a place in the Russian Premier League's top six.

But there's another, even more ambitious goal, which is to use football to bring some hope and happiness to Dagestan. "Of course, there is not a lot of fun to be had in Makhachkala," admits Mr Udaltsov. "Mr Kerimov is very interested in giving people here something to be proud of."

Match tickets can be bought for as little as £2, and the atmosphere on Sunday as Anzhi took on Zenit St Petersburg, one of Russia's top sides and the 2008 UEFA Cup Winners, was electric. The stadium was full, and children shimmied up walls to try to glimpse inside the ground, as hundreds of police patrolled the cordons outside to ensure there were no security incidents. Inside the stadium, a band of drummers banged out the traditional lezginka dance, and the stadium joined in with chants of "Dagestan! Dagestan!" Zenit scored a late winner, condemning Anzhi to only their second defeat of the season, but the fans still left happy.

"The players we used to have were rubbish, and they didn't try hard," said Ali, a 19-year-old who claims to have seen every home game for the past three years. "Now we've got Roberto Carlos! I still can't believe it?"

For now, the team is based in Makhachkala for only a couple of days before each home match. They spend the rest of the time at their main training base just outside Moscow. The club denies this is for security reasons, instead pointing to the lack of infrastructure in Dagestan. When the new stadium is built, the team will move there full-time, says Mr Udaltsov.

Carlos himself, in an interview with The Independent before the game, laughed with incredulity at the thought that Dagestan might be a dangerous place for him to live. "I trust Suleiman Kerimov, and he told me it's a calm and safe region, and with the help of football it can become even better," he said, as the gentle waves of the Caspian Sea lapped the sandy beach that adjoins the Anzhi compound. "The violence that is written about in some places on the internet is all in the past, and has nothing to do with how things are here now."

But while the violence in Dagestan tends to be carefully targeted against government officials and the police, the idea that it is a "calm and safe" region where violence is a distant memory is absurd. Two days before the interview, a top-ranking official in the FSB security services was attacked in a drive-by shooting. He was hospitalised in a critical condition, and two of his bodyguards killed.

The evening of the interview, a "special operation" took place an hour's drive south of the city. Two suspected terrorists were killed; one of their wives was allegedly shot dead while escaping. The next day, all that was visible was a circle of dry blood in the mud outside the house, at the point where she had been shot.

The local chief of police arrived, and was confronted by the mother and sister of the young girl. "She was running away, and you killed her, you killed my little sister!" yelled one of the women at the policeman, tears streaming down her face. "You're all corrupt liars! May Allah strike you down and may the same misfortune befall your children too!" The policeman's plain-clothed guards fingered their weapons nervously.

The cycle of violence in Dagestan continues. Yesterday, the head press secretary of the republic's president, Magomedsalam Magomedov, was shot dead as he got into his car.

The authorities have said many times that the best way to stop young people from joining the insurgents is to give them economic opportunities and hope. Sport and a "healthy lifestyle" are repeated as mantras of how to keep young people out of trouble, and the hope is that the "Anzhi phenomenon" will promote social cohesion and pride in the area.

One of Mr Kerimov's stated goals is that at least one local Anzhi player should make the Russia squad for the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in Russia. Seven youth academies will be set up in the next five years in different cities across Dagestan to promote young talent, says Mr Udaltsov.

Not everyone is impressed – a story in the local newspaper, Chernovik, in April pointed out that while Carlos was on a reported salary of about £4m a year, a local schoolteacher in Dagestan earns between £2,000 and £2,500. But for those inside the stadium, it is a price worth paying. "Russians, they say there's nothing here except sheep and terrorists," said 24-year-old Gadzhi, proudly waving a flag on the terrace and cheering his side on. "Well, they're wrong. We have Anzhi!"

Russian billionaires in football

Suleiman Kerimov Was handed control of Anzhi in January in return for promising to finance the team. Reportedly attends every home game and gives pep talks to the team.

Alisher Usmanov Uzbekistan-born Russian businessman, the world's 35th richest person and a major shareholder in Arsenal.

Roman Abramovich The original "football oligarch". Made his money in oil, and has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in Chelsea since acquiring the club in 2003.

Bulat Chagayev Secretive Chechen businessman who has invested in the local club Terek Grozny, run by Chechnya's hardman president, Ramzan Kadyrov. Ruud Gullit quit as manager after a few months, calling his stint there "too bizarre for words".