Deeper Than Oil: Eto’o and the most bizarre transfer ever

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
The transfer of Samuel Eto’o to provincial Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala from Inter Milan earlier this week was insane. There is no other word for it. The move makes no sense at all on a sporting or social level. Still, I’m glad he’s here.

The transfer of Samuel Eto’o to provincial Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala from Inter Milan earlier this week was insane. There is no other word for it. The move makes no sense at all on a sporting or social level. Still, I’m glad he’s here.

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, Cameroon international Eto’o, 30, has signed for Anzhi, from Russia’s volatile North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, for 21 million euros and a salary that – if initial reports of $500,000 a week are true– would make him the world’s highest-paid athlete.

Anzhi is bankrolled by local tycoon Suleiman Kerimov, the 118th richest person in the world, according to Forbes. His personal wealth has been estimated at some $8 billion.

But Dagestan – which saw around 50% of all terrorist attacks in Russia last year – is not only violent, it is also impoverished, with average monthly salaries of under $300. Or almost 7,000 times less than Eto’o could be raking in. (Anzhi have since said he will be earning less than the initially reported figures, but since that would mean he will get around the same as in Milan, most observers are understandably skeptical).

“People here don’t really understand why he is coming. Why is Anzhi spending so much on players?” my friend Arslan from Makhachkala told me when I spoke to him after the move was announced.

Eto’o is not the only high-profile signing Anzhi have made this season. Roberto Carlos, the 38-year-old former Brazilian captain joined earlier this year, and Russian international Yury Zhirkov signed from Chelsea recently. Add these big names to a number of astute acquisitions in the form of former PSV midfielder Balazs Dzsudzsak and the Moroccan Mbark Boussoufa, and it’s easy to see why Kerimov hopes Anzhi will be playing Champions League football soon.

The signing of Eto’o may be a great coup for Russian football, but I can’t help but feel it has come a little early. This is, after all, a player who has been on the winning side in two out of the last three Champion League finals, a man who scored 33 goals in 67 league appearances in Italy in the last two seasons.

While Roberto Carlos may be a big name, at 38 he is clearly not in his prime. Eto’o, however, can realistically be said to be one of the best players on the planet. There is no one even slightly comparable to him in the Russian game and there is a danger Eto’o’s star could simply burn too brightly. His first home game is against Volga Nizhny Novgorod – and it’s terrifying to think what a striker who has scored goals against teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan will do to a side newly promoted from the Russian second tier.

But, even if he does score dozens of goals, it's possible that no one outside Russia will notice. For all the cash being splashed around by oligarchs and energy companies, Russian football is not yet on a level with leagues in England, Italy and Spain. Has Eto'o swapped bundles of cash for anonymity?

There has been a suggestion that Eto’o moved to Anzhi because he is considering a move into politics in Cameroon when he finally quits football and he needs to build up his resources. That sounds believable – he wouldn’t be the first wealthy African footballer to go into politics. It would also explain his need to earn even more money than the millions he must already have stashed away.

After all, for a player who has banned his children from watching him play live over racial abuse, Russia isn’t exactly the best place to continue your career. Many Russian fans are notorious racists, and Roberto Carlos has twice had bananas either hurled at him or thrust in his face.

But while money may explain Eto’o’s bizarre decision to come to Russia, it’s not so easy to gauge the motives of Kerimov. A notoriously reclusive billionaire who made his money in a range of business, including fertilizers, Kerimov was handed ownership of Anzhi in January by Dagestan’s president in return for some $200m investment in the club.

So what’s Kerimov up to here? Is the “Anzhi project” – as the club’s buying spree has been dubbed in Russia – an ingenious plan to build up Dagestan’s world image through football? Is the plan to attract first world stars in sport, then international corporations in an attempt to eventually ease social hardships, and with it the Islamist insurgency? Or is it simply the crazed ego trip of an out-of-touch tycoon? For now, as often in Russia, there are more questions than answers.

All eyes will be on Eto’o when he takes the pitch in Rostov-on-Don for his unlikely Russian debut on August 27. And even if the move makes no sense whatsoever, at first glance at least, he’s bound to liven up the league and put Makhachkala (it’s near Grozny, if that helps) on the map.


The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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