Russian Billionaire’s Team Becomes ‘Crazy Adventure’ for Eto’o

Record Four-Time African Player of the Year Samuel Eto’o
Record four-time African Player of the Year Samuel Eto’o said, "It’s my dream to contribute to this crazy adventure.” Photographer: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

Samuel Eto’o, the record four-time African Player of the Year, said he’s embarking on a “crazy adventure” as the latest high-profile signing by Russian billionaire Suleiman Kerimov’s soccer club.

Eto’o, who won Europe’s elite Champions League twice with Barcelona and once with Inter Milan, last month signed a three-year contract with Anzhi Makhachkala. Kerimov, a gold and potash investor who bought the team in January, has spent 100 million euros ($136 million) to bring players to the capital of southern Dagestan, which has struggled with a separatist conflict for more than a decade.

“It was difficult at the start, because I didn’t even know where the club was,” the 30-year-old captain of Cameroon’s national team said after arriving in Makhachkala for the first time last weekend. “I’m pretty happy because, as you’ve seen, there’s a great deal of desire, a lot of passion. It’s my dream to contribute to this crazy adventure.”

Kerimov is worth about $7.8 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He owns a stake in OAO Polyus Gold, Russia’s largest gold company, and controls the world’s biggest supplier of the farm chemical potash, OAO Uralkali, with partners.

The 45-year-old has brought in Eto’o, former Brazil World Cup-winning defender Roberto Carlos and ex-Chelsea defender Yuri Zhirkov to the team, which was founded in 1991. It entered Russia’s top division in 2000 and was relegated two years later before returning to the Premier League in 2009.

First Match

In his first home game in Makhachkala’s 17,000-capacity stadium on Sept. 12, Eto’o scored a goal that helped Anzhi to a 2-1 victory and lifted it to fourth place in the league.

The striker is earning 10 million euros a year, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported Aug. 23.

“We pay enough to see him here in our team,” club General Director German Chistyakov said as Eto’o drew loud cheers from some 7,000 fans during a training session on a sultry night before the inaugural home match. Chistyakov declined to give details on the salary, saying “it’s commercial information.”

The move is a logical one financially for Eto’o, said Tom Cannon, a sports business professor at the U.K.’s Liverpool University.

“He reached a stage in his career when he was going to trade down anyway,” Cannon said. “He wasn’t going to stay with a major club because of his age. It’s better for him, in terms of money, than going to a minor club in Italy, in England, in Spain or Germany.”

Corruption, Poverty

Dagestan lies on the shores of the Caspian Sea and is one of the poorest regions in Russia. Wages in the area last year averaged 10,000 rubles ($330) a month, half of the national level.

Corruption and efforts by insurgents to topple the Moscow-backed government have damaged the economy. Dagestan, which relies on central government subsidies, has an agricultural sector and oil pipelines.

More than 220 people were killed in the first six months of the year, according to Kavkazskiy Uzel, a research group which monitors the region.

“The overall security situation is getting worse,” even after efforts to rehabilitate insurgents, said Kavkazskiy Uzel’s editor-in-chief, Grigory Shvedov.

Fans are enthusiastic about the club’s prospects under Kerimov, who has promised to build Anzhi City, a sports complex with a new soccer stadium.

“I have a great respect for Suleiman Kerimov, because he started a new history for us: the club has been reborn,” said Magomedov Ali, a 21-year economics student. “He’s spending a lot of money, which is the right thing to do. He’s investing in soccer, his native Dagestan.”

After Abramovich

Kerimov is the latest Russian billionaire to pour money into a soccer club. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has spent more than $1 billion to sign players to turn the English Premier League team into a domestic and European powerhouse. The Russian has also converted almost 700 million pounds ($1.1 billion) in loans into equity.

Some Dagestanis think Kerimov could find more productive things to fund.

“Not everyone in the region is happy about these multi-million-dollar contracts,” Shvedov said. “They’d prefer the money to be spent on alleviating poverty and social needs.”

Eto’o won’t be living in Dagestan, which he said was a “backwater” that reminded him of his native Cameroon. He’ll fly in and out of the region for 15 home games a season. The team will train and stay in Moscow, where Kerimov lives.

Travel Concerns

Eto’o, who will be traveling with the squad on a Russian-made Tupolev, started his press conference last weekend with a minute’s silence for the victims of the Sept. 7 crash that killed 44 people, including most of Russia’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, on a Yakovlev-42 aircraft.

Russia is the world’s most dangerous country for air travel this year, surpassing the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“When I take a flight, whether Russian, Cameroonian, Spanish or even Italian, I usually put my life in the hands of God,” Eto’o said. “You pray to live as long as you can, but when your day comes, it’s God’s will.”

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