MOSCOW — When a little-known Russian soccer team in the economically deprived North Caucasus region of Dagestan was flush with cash, they flaunted it.
Anzhi Makhachkala, based in an area near the Caspian Sea also known for its Islamist insurgency, was formerly run by billionaire Suleiman Kerimov. He spent millions from 2011-13 to bring in established stars like Samuel Eto'o and Roberto Carlos. The players lived in Moscow — some in lavish conditions — and only flew to Dagestan for games.
The overhaul was soon followed by a song. A rap song, to be precise, with an accompanying video showing both Eto'o and Roberto Carlos in uniform and grooving along to the beat.
But the team soon went from boom to bust and five years after its sudden and mysterious fire sale of world-class players, Anzhi is struggling to survive.
Players haven't received their salaries since March, the Russian players' union told The Associated Press, and Anzhi was hit with a transfer embargo on Thursday for debts to a former player.
"I'm getting scared about what will happen after the last match this year on Dec. 8," Anzhi coach Magomed Adiev said after last week's 2-0 loss to CSKA Moscow. "The players will all go in different directions, the transfer window is closed to us, everyone can leave for free and we can't get new players."
Regardless of whether the players leave, the fans are certainly staying away.
Even with UFC champion and local star Khabib Nurmagomedov in the stadium for a pre-game ceremony, the Anzhi Arena was a third full for the game against CSKA Moscow, which nearly didn't happen at all. The club's CEO, Oleg Flegontov, has said that his players are owed money, but expressed relief they called off a planned boycott.
There was "a very serious problem" even with travelling to Makhachkala for the CSKA game, Flegontov told Russian newspaper Sport Express last week.
Anzhi's rise is stature began with the 2011 takeover by Kerimov, a billionaire fertilizer magnate with connections in the Kremlin.
Kerimov immediately signed Eto'o from Inter Milan in a deal which reportedly made him the best-paid player in the world. Roberto Carlos soon joined, first as a fullback and then as assistant to former Real Madrid and Chelsea coach Guus Hiddink. Midfielders Willian and Lassana Diarra came on board and Russian stars were signed en masse.
Kerimov moved the team's base from Makhachkala to Moscow for security reasons, meaning the players must fly back to Dagestan for home matches.
UEFA, however, ruled it was too great a security risk to host European games in Makhachkala. Instead, the team played "home" matches in the Europa League in Moscow, and the capital's often-marginalized migrant workers flocked to the stadium to watch.
Off the field, there was a lavishly decorated penthouse apartment for Eto'o in Moscow and plans for a new 45,000-seat stadium back home in Makhachkala.
The club rap song heaped praise on the owner.
"There's never been anyone like Suleiman Kerimov," local rapper Timaro sings.
But by August 2013, the fun was over. A statement on Anzhi's website announced a "new long-term development strategy" — immediate budget cuts and a fire sale of players, some signed only weeks before. By the end of the month, Eto'o and Willian were at Chelsea.
Kerimov has never explained exactly why he pulled the funding.
The club statement announcing the decision pointed to UEFA's financial fair play rules, which threatened to bar Anzhi from European competition because of its heavy spending and minuscule earnings. Around that time, Kerimov was also embroiled in a legal dispute in Belarus, though it was later resolved.
Since then, Anzhi has been in near-permanent turmoil. The club was relegated at the end of the 2013-14 season, and then promoted again, but has not finished higher than 12th since. The team has had eight coaches in five years.
Kerimov cut his final ties with the team in 2016 and successor Osman Kadiev has appeared unable to sustain the club, which currently sits in the Russian league's relegation zone.
Unless the team finds the money to pay its players, it may not even finish the season — something unimaginable only seven years ago.
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