Money trumps danger when it comes to luring top soccer players to Anzhi

Makhachkala is the capital of the most dangerous region in Europe, according to the BBC. It is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, bombings, kidnap and torture.

Yet this summer, incredibly, the city's only professional club is poised to become the hottest new destination in soccer.

Once the European season draws to an end in five weeks, Anzhi Makhachkala is likely to become one of the most influential movers in the transfer window thanks to the deep pockets of billionaire owner Suleyman Kerimov, one of the world's 100 richest men with total wealth in excess of $8 billion. Several of the world's greatest players will think long and hard over whether to transport their career to this troubled corner of Dagestan, an ethnically diverse republic governed by Russia and beset by political unrest and civilian bloodshed.

Money talks loudly in soccer. Huge signing bonuses and record-breaking weekly wage packets are enough to turn superstar heads in the direction of a city so precarious that every one of Anzhi's players live and train 1,200 miles away in Moscow and are transported into Makhachkala for games via private jet.

Rather than a luxury, this measure is seen as a necessity to protect the squad from being either caught in the crossfire of a territorial and fundamental dispute that still rages or being kidnapped and held for ransom by unscrupulous opportunists. It means that the return journey for each Anzhi "home" game in the Russian Premier League makes for a longer commute than all but one of its away matches.

"I am proud to represent Dagestan and to play for this team," said star forward Samuel Eto'o of Cameroon.

In reality, though, Eto'o's sheltered lifestyle means he is unlikely to have a full picture of what really goes on in Makhachkala and its surrounding towns. The conflict is so bad that few Western journalists dare to venture there. One that did – respected BBC correspondent and documentarian Lucy Ash – described scenes of extreme tension and lawlessness.

"Attacks … in which Islamic fighters punish shops that sell alcohol have become routine in … Makhachkala," wrote Ash, while explaining a recent attack where a fundamentalist casually walked into a store, placed a bomb on the counter, set the timer and advised patrons to leave.

Anzhi's games are played at Dinamo Stadium, an outdated complex seating 20,000. Part of the arrangement that saw Kerimov handed control is a stipulation that he builds a lavish new arena in the outskirts of the city and invests heavily enough to turn the team into a major European force.

Early indications are that he firmly intends to make good on that promise.

Eto'o was lured away from Inter Milan with a contract worth $500,000 per week – after taxes – making him the best-paid player in the world. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo earn more in total thanks to their array of endorsements, but no soccer star receives a salary as high as Eto'o's.

This was not the only outlay on Anzhi's part, as a further $25 million was required to convince Inter to part ways with the 31-year-old Eto'o, an amount that was paid in full via a single wire transfer payment.

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With legendary Dutch coach Guus Hiddink in charge, no expense is being spared and more big signings will certainly come in the summer. Anzhi will throw itself into the transfer merry-go-round surrounding any big-name player who seems to be angling for a move and will hope that what the club lacks in history and tradition can be made up with cold, hard cash.

"This is a club that is moving in the right direction and people can see that," said Hiddink, who took his native Netherlands and South Korea to World Cup semifinals and has also managed Chelsea and Real Madrid. "Hopefully the situation in Makhachkala can stabilize to the point where the team can train and be based there before too long."

One factor that will have a direct result on Anzhi's recruiting power will be how strongly it finishes the Russian season. Anzhi is currently in seventh place in the standings but is just six points behind second place – which would secure a Champions League place – and three points back from fifth and its prize of a Europa League spot.

"If we can get into the Champions League then it will make this club even more attractive to the biggest stars," said Yuri Zhirkov, signed from Chelsea last year for a fee of around $20 million. "Anzhi is getting a lot of attention, but the best players will want to play Champions League now."

The Russian league is increasingly becoming a favored destination, thanks to the influx of cash from its astonishingly wealthy owners. Freezing weather and complaints of racism have deterred some, but in many cases money has won out.

"It is not normal to fly for home games, of course," Hiddink said. "But it has become normal for us and the players understand. We live in Moscow but the people of Makhachkala support us."

Next season, after a summer of ferocious checkbook-wielding, they may be supporting a handful of new superstars.

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