Anzhi Makhachkala are on the verge of adding to the £13m capture of former Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov with an even more unlikely signing – Samuel Eto'o of Internazionale and Cameroon. In the space of a few months, the club have quickly earned a reputation as the fastest-spending nouveaux riches on the planet.
In Russia everyone knows where Makhachkala is – almost every day there are new reports of shoot-outs and terrorist attacks by Islamic insurgents on police or on government officials. Elsewhere, the few people who have heard of the city know it as the capital of Dagestan, the unstable Russian region that borders Chechnya.
But Suleiman Kerimov, a locally-born oligarch and one of the richest men in Russia, is throwing hundreds of millions of pounds at Anzhi in a bid to make his region known for something different. Already the team has legendary Brazilian left-back Roberto Carlos, a handful of other promising international acquisitions and Zhirkov. But Carlos, at 38, is very much in the twilight of his career, and Zhirkov was unable to get regular action when he was at Chelsea.
Signing Eto'o from Internazionale – for a reported £30m – would take the surreal nature of the Anzhi project to a new level. This, after all, is a player who scored 37 goals for Inter last season. In 2010, he won the Champions League with them, and the year before, he won it with Barcelona. For him to start playing his home games in a scruffy 16,000-seat stadium on the hot, violent shores of the Caspian Sea will be an extraordinary move.
I spent a couple of days with the team in their Makhachkala compound a fortnight ago, and Roberto Carlos told me that the region was completely safe, and that all violence was in the past. He was either lying or he has been lied to – that week there were several fatal attacks on government officials and a military operation that killed three terrorists.
The next week, the president's chief spokesman was assassinated on his way to work. Although Carlos claims the place is safe, the club trains in Moscow and flies into Makhachkala for just two days before home games.
Kerimov's plans include a new 40,000-seat stadium complex and the eventual relocation of the team to Dagestan full-time, but even now the club has to pay a premium to attract big names. "We know we have to pay people a little bit more to get them to come here than other clubs in Europe might," admitted Anzhi's PR director, Alexander Udaltsov, to me as I flew back with the team to Moscow after their game in Makhachkala.
If reports yesterday are to be believed, the premium is more than a "little bit". The club are allegedly ready to make the 30-year-old Cameroonian international the highest-paid footballer in the world, with a salary of around £340,000 a week.
For a bit of context, a schoolteacher in Dagestan has an average monthly salary of less than £50 per week. But the obscene amount of cash being thrown at the footballers has not provoked anger in Dagestan. In a region with a lot of problems, the football club has given people a rare opportunity to cheer. Home games are sold out, and huge posters of Roberto Carlos adorn the dusty city centre. The team is joint fourth in the Russian league, making a Champions League spot a real possibility.
Roberto Carlos himself denied that it was the giant pots of cash that drew him to Anzhi, and told me that he was excited to be "making history" by being at the club.
When asked about the £1m Bugatti Veyron that Kerimov, whom he describes as "a good friend", bought him as a birthday present earlier this year, he shrugged. "A Bugatti is basically the same as a bicycle; it's just a mode of transport," he said. "In Brazil, I had a helicopter."
Lowdown on Dagestan
Dagestan is known as "land of mountains" and the difficult terrain has limited travel and communications resulting in a diverse ethnic mix amongst the fast-growing population of three million. The republic benefits from the resources of the Caspian Sea and boasts more than 50 oilfields, but it is also beset by ethnic and religious tensions. Kidnappings, assassinations, violence and the use of firearms are commonplace and Islamist militias have been active in the area since 1999. However, none of that deterred recent signing Roberto Carlos from learning national dance Lezginka with a local dancer.
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