Deeper Than Oil: The Return of Russia’s Savior

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
This time next week, a very famous figure will be back in business in Russia. A man, who once pulled the country up from its knees and transformed it into a force to be reckoned with. Yes, that’s right, Guus Hiddink has returned.

This time next week, a very famous figure will be back in business in Russia. A man, who once pulled the country up from its knees and transformed it into a force to be reckoned with. Yes, that’s right, Guus Hiddink has returned.

Of course, Dutch football coach Hiddink, who turned Russia from a side that had not long before been trounced 7-1 by Portugal into Euro 2008 semi-finalists, isn’t in charge of the national team this time round. No, he’s taken on the task of turning mega-rich Dagestani side Anzhi Makhachkala into the country’s top club. Or at least get them into next year’s Champions League. Some would say that’s an even tougher job than the miracle he performed four years ago with Russia.

Anzhi hail from Russia’s volatile North Caucasus republic of Dagestan and are 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.

A small slice of that went last year into bringing Cameroon international Samuel Eto’o to Dagestan for 21 million euros and a salary that, if reports of $500,000 a week are true, would make him the world’s highest-paid athlete. Anzhi can also boast Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos and former Chelsea midfielder Yury Zhirkov in their line-up. Media reports say Hiddink will earn about $14 million a year at Anzhi

However, despite the stars, Anzhi have failed to spark and lie in seventh place, 13 points behind leaders Zenit with 12 games of the season left. They are, however, only six points behind third placed Dynamo Moscow, who occupy the last Champions League spot. Hiddink’s first game in charge of Anzhi is on March 5, when the team play Dynamo in Moscow in what could be a season-defining clash.

Not that they will have very far to go. While Anzhi may represent Dagestan, the security situation in the republic, recently dubbed the “most dangerous place in Europe” by the BBC, means it is far too dangerous for the side to actually live and train there. So they are based in Moscow and fly to Makhachkala for home games.

Of course, Hiddink’s reputation, after failing to take Russia to the 2010 World Cup and Turkey to this summer’s Euros, is not as great as it once was. But, even so, it’s not like he had no choice but to continue his career with Anzhi.

So what’s he up to?

“I understood that this club has great ambitions,” Hiddink said, when questioned as to his motivations.

"The fact that the Chinese and some other representatives offered me much more money makes no difference," Hiddink added in an interview published on the team’s website.

But while money surely played a part in Hiddink’s decision, it’s also possible he was tempted by the very real chance to make history with the previously obscure club from the coast of the Caspian Sea. Hiddink has always thrived when taking control of struggling teams, when the pressure is to some extent off.

Still, Kerimov is likely to want some return for his cash soon, once the buzz of having one of the most famous names in football management in charge of his club wears off.

A notoriously reclusive billionaire who made his money in a range of business, including fertilizers, Kerimov was handed ownership of Anzhi in January 2011 in return for some $200m investment in the club.

And while Hiddink’s motivations may be fairly clear, it’s not so obvious what Kerimov is aiming for. 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 republic’s Islamist insurgency? Or is it simply the crazed ego trip of an out-of-touch tycoon?

Of course, Hiddink has some practice when it comes to dealing with Russian billionaires, having temporarily managed Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. He was also on the stubble-chinned oligarch’s payroll when he was Russia’s coach.

Hiddink’s association with Russia is due partly, they say, to Vladimir Putin and his fury when Russia was thrashed by Portugal back in 2006. Although no great football fan, Putin was reportedly livid after the result and ordered the country’s football chief to find a trainer who could restore some pride to the national team. It’s just a coincidence of course, but in case you hadn’t heard, Putin is likely to get his old job back next week. He and Hiddink should have plenty to talk about, if they meet.

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

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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