When one of Russia’s billionaire oligarchs buys a football club, they tend to choose one that comes with a certain level of glamour or ostentation. Roman Abramovich picked out Stamford Bridge while chartering his helicopter over the gleaming penthouses of west London. Alisher Usmanov invested in Arsenal, a few miles away in the capital’s leafy north. Dmitry Rybolovlev ploughed his fortune into Monaco, its stadium tucked away amid the yachts and casinos of the French Riviera.

Suleiman Kerimov, though, was a bit different. When he decided to play sugar daddy to a club in need in 2011, he didn’t look for one that would bring him glitz, profile or favourable tax rates; instead he bought Anzhi Makhachkala, located on a desolate coastal outpost of Russia, in a place riven with catastrophic violence – the place he called home. Anzhi had little history to speak of, founded just 20 years earlier and having yo-yoed unremarkably between the country’s first and second tiers since. In short, it was just about the least glamorous club in the world. But what followed was one of the most extraordinary football stories of modern times: in the blink of an eye an unheard-of club in impoverished Dagestan was transformed into a household name, its squad stacked with superstars and featuring the highest-paid player on the planet. Almost immediately there was a title charge and a cup final. And yet less than a decade later, Anzhi are marooned at the foot of Russia’s third division, utterly penniless, unable to serve their players a hot meal. Indeed, they’re lucky to exist at all, and may not do for much longer. Kerimov, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen.

“The most dangerous place in Europe” barked the headline of a BBC news report from 2011 about Makhachkala, capital of the republic of Dagestan, in Russia’s disputed North Caucasus province. Dagestan has been one of Russia’s most deprived regions since the Soviet era, blighted by low-level warfare since Chechen militants launched an invasion in 1999 with the aim of creating an independent Islamic state and Russia responded by reinvading Chechnya. Around 2010, though, a further upsurge in violence – rising Islamic fundamentalism having added an extra catalyst to a combustible mix of extreme poverty, aggressive separatism and local government corruption – had led to fears of a sectarian civil war. 

“A whole different world” is a phrase that crops up more than once when talking to players who have moved to Anzhi at various points over the years. They tend not to stay there long. “Looking at a map, you think it’s a part of Russia, but it has nothing to do with places like Moscow or St Petersburg,” said Miro Slavov, a striker who joined from Bordeaux in the pre-Kerimov days of 2010. “You didn’t see anyone holding hands on the street. In restaurants there were walls separating each table, so nobody could see couples out together – it was very, very strict.” 

Vadim Demidov, a Norway international who joined Anzhi in 2016, described the city as “empty – there’s not a lot of lights during the night. We were told to stay inside at the hotel because it was not 100 per cent safe outside. There’s nothing to do there, it’s very off-grid from the rest of the world. No shops, no anything.”

The Russian military are a major presence. “Our training base was just outside of Makhachkala and on the road I took to training there was a control point, always manned by soldiers with heavy weapons,” Slavov recalls. “One day we were eating dinner at training and on the news we saw there had been an attack on that control point. On the way home, we saw bullet holes in the wall.” That was one of many guerrilla attacks by Islamist insurgents, who target state officials – mainly police – with everything from pipe bombs to sniper rifles in a slow and grimly attritional war that leaves about 1,000 dead every year. It was against this backdrop that Suleiman Kerimov made his fortune.

Kerimov was born and raised in Derbent, a small city in Dagestan. As a young man he followed up his military service with a degree in accounting and economics at Dagestan State University, and amassed his wealth amid the post-Soviet collapse – though not through the accrual of natural resources, as many of his soon-to-be peers did, but through buy-and-sell financial investments. He has long been trailed by speculation over whether his investments are sometimes made on behalf of a silent Kremlin (Kerimov denies he invests anyone’s money apart from his own) and certainly he has been the beneficiary of generous loans from Russian state banks. Between the end of 2003 and 2008 he made US$21bn investing in two Russian blue chips: Gazprom, the giant gas monopoly, and Sberbank, the biggest state bank, in a venture funded by US$4bn in loans from Sberbank. (Sberbank’s shares soon rose tenfold; everyone came away a winner.) 

His attitude towards investing was one of common sense, patience and good faith. “The main thing during a crisis is discipline, to begin investing in time again after the crisis subsides,” Kerimov said. Yet this outlook cost him dearly during the 2008 financial crash, when he hung on longer than most and saw his assets plummet, his estimated wealth dropping from US$17.5bn to US$3.1bn.

But two years later, his purchase of shares in the potash fertiliser giant Uralkali – bought from Dmitry Rybolovlev in a deal that created an effective cartel over the world’s potash supply – was funded with the help of sizeable loans from VTB, Russia’s number two state bank. Uralkali share prices soon skyrocketed and Kerimov saw his bank balance replenish healthily. When he took over Anzhi in January 2011, he was among the 120 wealthiest people in the world.

Kerimov’s purchase came with little in the way of public pronouncements; as such, his reasons for buying the club remain largely a matter of hearsay and speculation. What can be said is that it was sudden and unexpected, not only because of Anzhi’s profoundly unglamorous stature but because Kerimov, chairman of the board of trustees of the Russian Wrestling Federation, was not known to be much of a football fan. He was most famous for his lifestyle of sports cars, yachts and lavish parties (Christina Aguilera, Shakira and Amy Winehouse have all performed at his private functions) which had earned him the moniker of ‘Russia’s Gatsby’. Some saw the takeover as exactly the sort of civic-minded demonstration that might advance his political ambitions: Kerimov served as Dagestan’s senator on the upper house of Russia’s Federal Assembly – he still does – and it is no secret that Vladimir Putin, as part of his ongoing effort to decentralise the Russian economy, “encourages” his country’s oligarchs to plough money into regional projects. “I don’t know what his reasons [for investment] are,” says one journalist. “Was he told by someone in the Kremlin to create something that can make Dagestan look like a more peaceful region?”

If so, it was well disguised. Kerimov’s purchase did not have the look of a token gesture made to please his higher-ups. Within weeks, £50m had been spent in transfer fees alone – with fortunes more committed in wages – and £200m put aside for a new stadium. A state-of-the-art youth academy also formed part of the blueprint. Little to no money actually changed hands during the takeover, the president of Dagestan essentially handing over ownership of the club in exchange for the promise of heavy investment, but Kerimov was as good as his word, and then some. 

“The football club stands out against all the negative news,” he said in a rare public statement a year after taking over. “People are starting to hope for the better… Big stars don’t play everywhere, and, look, they’re in Makhachkala! People have something to be proud of. It means they can see something positive there and they gain the motivation to work.” His words were hard to argue with. Whatever Kerimov’s motivations were in buying Anzhi, philanthropy – and local pride – did indeed seem to be among them.

The first major arrival was Roberto Carlos, who had reportedly caught Kerimov’s eye scoring a goal on TV and who was now a free agent at 37. (“They said he was too old,” said the owner, “but I said we need Carlos.”) He met up with his wide-eyed new teammates at a training camp in Turkey. Slavov remembers coming down for breakfast at the team hotel to the unfamiliar sight of a media maelstrom as the jumbo-thighed World Cup-winner swanned into the lobby. “Even the security guys, who were supposed to be protecting him, were grabbing him for photos – pretty violently! But he was always polite, always smiling.”

Slavov made his Anzhi debut the same night as the Brazilian, in a Russian Cup tie at home to giants Zenit St Petersburg – the first match of the Kerimov era. “The day before the game, Kerimov came into the dressing room and told the players: ‘If you win this game I will give you a million dollars, to split among the squad however you want,” he remembers, still incredulous. “I was a 20-year-old with no experience, making my debut. It was crazy. And we lost 3-2 – it was a close game!” Roberto Carlos started at left-back but at half-time, badly out of breath, he asked to be moved position and played the second half in holding midfield – “not running much”, says Slavov.

The Brazilian, who was immediately installed as captain, soon made it a habit to use the half-time interval as a personal cigarette break, nipping outside while the rest of the squad gathered to listen to the manager’s team talk. He turned 38 a month after joining and Kerimov threw him a party at a Moscow nightclub, where the players were greeted by a drove of mysterious beautiful women and the rapper Flo Rida, who had been jetted in to give a private performance. For the night’s denouement, Kerimov presented the birthday boy with the keys to a €1.8m Bugatti Veyron sports car. He promptly had it shipped to Sao Paolo.

Three more high-profile players had arrived during the winter transfer window – Diego Tardelli and Jucilei, a pair of highly rated young Brazilians, and Mbark Boussoufa, the Anderlecht playmaker who had just been named Belgium’s player of the year for the second time in succession. The club’s previous record transfer had been a Bulgarian midfielder called Todor Timonov, for £315k. Now they had spent 60 times that sum in less than a month.

Anzhi, promoted to the Premier League the previous season, had ended that campaign with a respectable 13th-place finish, three points clear of relegation. The Kerimov era kicked off in similarly unspectacular fashion, the side scraping just one win from their first four games, before an upturn in results in the spring – Roberto Carlos chipping in with three goals in seven games – took them to the heady heights of fourth. "In two years we should start aiming to win the league," the manager Gadzhi Gadzhiyev said in September. "Or maybe that will be our goal next season."

If the club’s on-field fortunes were quietly promising, events off the field confirmed they meant business. The summer transfer window saw the arrivals of Balázs Dzsudzsák – the ‘Hungarian Beckham’ and one of Europe’s hottest young properties – and Yuri Zhirkov, a bona fide Russian superstar. A less hyped but equally notable arrival was that of Shamil Lakhiyalov, a 32-year-old striker who had played for Anzhi five years earlier, when the club was in the second tier. During that time his older brother Murad was killed in an eight-hour confrontation with the Russian army in Makhachkala. Lakhiyalov, who grew up in the city, resolved to stay there after the incident and played for Anzhi for two more years, becoming a crowd favourite. When Anzhi embarked on their spending spree in 2011 Lakhiyalov had just signed for Krasnodar but Kerimov paid £4m – a notably over-the-top sum – to bring him back to Anzhi. Kerimov’s project, it seemed, was not your average ego-trip.

If that was a statement signing in its own unorthodox way then there soon followed a rather more conventional one – the moment the world sat up and took note. It had been rumoured for some time that Samuel Eto’o, a treble-winner with Inter just 12 months earlier, may be leaving Serie A that summer. But few guessed he’d be heading for Dagestan. The deal was preceded by almost nothing in the way of speculation and wrapped up instantly. “This would go down as one of the biggest transfers in football history,” reported Fox Sports the day before it went through. “Not just in terms of the finances involved, but in the seismic shift in football’s power-base that it could entail.” It was no overstatement. In a place where the average wage was £156 a month, Eto’o had signed a contract worth €20m a year – after tax. It made him the highest paid footballer on the planet. 

The transfer made waves globally, but locally too. “In Makhachkala, the mood was different,” remembers Alina Kasúmova, sports editor of the TV channel Russia 24 and a lifelong Anzhi fan. “People became obsessed with football. Even grandmothers from mountain villages were interested in Anzhi. People from young to old followed the club’s successes or failures. Men covered their cars with club stickers. It was а fantastic football celebration. А beautiful dream.”

At 30 years old, the Cameroonian was still one of the world’s best forwards and his arrival prompted conflicting feelings within a squad of otherwise undistinguished players. “It was a huge deal,” says Slavov, who was suddenly competing with Eto’o for a place in the side. “On the one hand we were excited, we wanted to be part of something big. On the other hand, we were hoping the club bought players that were not in our position. But how can you complain about being left out for Eto’o? He could score with any part of his body – head, shoulder, left or right foot, knee. Ass. It was amazing.”

It was his trusty right foot that did the trick on his debut – a clinical finish in a 2-1 victory against FC Volga – and Eto’o, for his part, said all the right things. “I asked myself whether I could give faith and hope to a region and really create something," he explained. “The only thing that I want to give is hope and we all know that hope lets us live. There is nothing more valuable than to have the hope of living a better day tomorrow. The club is not only a football club, it represents the whole region and it represents the hope of everything.” 

His signing had sent the rumour mill shuddering into overdrive. Nicolas Anelka, Robin van Persie and Neymar were linked with moves to Dagestan – so was Lionel Messi. It was put to Roberto Carlos that the latter idea was surely impossible. “You don’t know Suleiman Kerimov,” came the reply.

Like any nouveau riche football club, Anzhi’s sudden rise to prominence did not invite the well-wishes of other fans. But unlike other superclubs, this animosity was tied up in an ugly debate about ethnicity and national identity. The historically Islamic region of Dagestan has been locked in a centuries-long tension with Moscow-centred Russia, which flared up again when Putin rode to power on the back of a war in the region in 1999, and the president has steadily stoked the flame of Slavic nationalism ever since. It’s a friction that has often found an expression in football crowds. “When we played against Spartak, it was like war,” says Slavov. “Spartak stands for the people of Russia, so every game with them was like a national-team game: us against them.” In 2010, a Spartak Moscow fan was killed in a confrontation with a group from the Caucasus, which in turn sparked skinhead rallies and attacks on migrants on the Moscow metro that left two men dead. “Stop feeding the Caucasus” is a slogan often seen at nationalist marches in Moscow. Anzhi’s bling-bling era, then, heaped grist to the mill of prejudice and hostility. Shortly after joining Anzhi, Zhirkov was booed by his own fans while playing for Russia, his decision to join a club from the Caucasus seen as treason by a cohort of ultra-nationalist supporters. The episode left him in tears. 

Nor was this the only form of prejudice Anzhi’s A-listers would encounter in their new surrounds. In his first season Roberto Carlos was twice the victim of banana-throwing incidents – the first, away at Krylya Sovetov, saw him walk off the pitch in protest – while Christopher Samba was to be subjected to the same treatment in his third game for the club. He picked up the banana and threw it back into the stands.

The acrimony only served to further rouse the Anzhi fans. Attendances at home games had immediately surged in response to the initial influx of stars and showed no sign of dropping, with the Dynamo Stadium – the former home of their now-defunct city rivals, where the team would play until their new Anzhi Arena was completed – near enough selling out its 15,000 capacity every week and the stands ringing out with chants of “Uncle Suleiman”. 

The man they were serenading, meanwhile, cut a distantly mysterious figure. He could be spotted on match days, gazing down from a tinted VIP box amid a forest of automatic rifles, but those were his only public appearances. He didn’t do interviews. Word spread among the players that his distinctive flesh-coloured gloves, which he’d worn in public since suffering burns when he crashed his Ferrari on the Nice waterfront five years earlier, were to protect him against a deadly poison that could be administered via handshake. “No matter where he went, he had five bodyguards around him,” said Slavov. “And they all looked like Jean-Claude Van Damme.” (The real JCVD, oddly, would appear as a personal guest of Kerimov’s at the first game in the newly built Anzhi Arena in 2013.) 

His football acquisitions weren’t limited to Makhachkala. Shortly after buying Anzhi, news broke that Dagdizel Kaspiysk, another Dagestani club, were facing financial insolvency. Kerimov quickly moved to negotiate a deal that saw Dagdizel not only avoid oblivion but emerge reinforced by his cash: installed with a high-pedigree coach and co-opted as Anzhi’s unofficial feeder club, where promising youngsters would be sent on loan. The catch? Dagdizel would be relocated to Kerimov’s home town of Derbent, 72 miles down the coast.

72 miles, though, was small beer compared with the distances Anzhi’s senior players were clocking up. In a new-look setup geared around wooing the cream of the crop, the entire squad and coaching staff had been moved away from Makhachkala and rehoused in the Russian capital, a full 1,200 miles from the club’s supposed home. Moscow had a new circus. “We had no say in the matter,” says Slavov. “It was: ‘Pack your bags, you’re moving to  Moscow.’ It was a dream for me, a 20-year-old single guy. But the local players were not so happy. They had families in Dagestan.” 

Anzhi were now in the absurd situation whereby every home fixture entailed the players taking a three-hour flight from Moscow to Makhachkala – the equivalent of London to Reykjavik – before bolting back to the airport at the final whistle. Not only did that mean near-constant travel (this being Russia, most away games also required a flight), it exposed an awkward tension at the heart of Kerimov’s project: could his football club truly “belong” to a place where its players barely set foot?

“I don’t think I ever stayed in Dagestan for more than two days,” says Abdul Razak, a centre-back who joined Anzhi from Manchester City. “We’d fly there on a Friday, play on a Saturday and fly back straight after the game. We weren’t allowed to go out, because of the reputation the place had – although to me it never felt dangerous. But we didn’t have a space, we were not settled down. We’d fly to a new place every three days: Europa League, Premier League, always on the plane, flying to another city. The league was good, the stadium was nice, and the fans were really good – really good. But settling in Russia was not easy.”

Razak lasted little more than four months at the club, departing in the end for West Ham, and his story was hardly uncommon. Dzsudzsák left after six months, having made just eight appearances, Tardelli after 10 months and 13 appearances. It was becoming clear that Kerimov’s project was locked in a catch-22 situation: a critical factor in luring quality players to the club – the guarantee of a base in Moscow – was the very thing that quickly drove them away.

The managers’ employment was proving just as fleeting, though not necessarily for the same reasons. In September 2011, eight months after taking over, Kerimov dispensed with Gadzhi Gadzhiyev, placing the team under the temporary charge of his assistant Andrei Gordeyev and Roberto Carlos. ''I am having dinner with the president and we'll speak about coaches for next season,” said the World Cup-winning left-back turned interim manager. “There are several names, such as [Fabio] Capello, [Guus] Hiddink, [Vanderlei] Luxemburgo and [Luiz Felipe] Scolari.''

In the end it was a less sexy name, the former Lokomotiv Moscow coach Yuri Krasnozhan, who got the job. The appointment caught the eye, however, as Krasnozhan had been sacked by Lokomotiv Moscow six months earlier, even though his side were unexpected league leaders, with the manager reportedly suspected by his boss of match-fixing following a shock 2-1 defeat to Anzhi. (A club statement had cryptically cited “negligence in his job” as the reason for his dismissal.) 

“I want to thank the board for the great trust they've put in me,” said Krasnozhan as he signed a five-year deal with Anzhi. Yet no sooner had the ink dried than he was handed his P45, leaving the club after just six weeks – and precisely zero competitive games – in charge. "I can only say that the main reason for my departure is a divergence of basic principles of the staff's management," Krasnozhan said. Local media reported the manager had been involved in training-ground clashes with Eto'o and Roberto Carlos, and the hierarchy had sided with the players. "FC Anzhi has accepted the resignation of head coach Yuri Krasnozhan,” read a club statement. “The parties decided not to dwell on the motives and reasons for the separation." (Krasnozhan would soon reappear at Terek Grozny, working under the presidency of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.)

This time it was a world-famous name who took the vacancy. Guus Hiddink penned a £10m-a-year contract to become the world’s highest-paid manager and quickly moved back into the Moscow penthouse he acquired while working for Roman Abramovich. A week later, Christopher Samba arrived from Blackburn on a reported £100,000-a-week deal, and two months after that the club closed out the season with a fifth-place finish, taking them into the qualifying stages for the Europa League. The club’s burgeoning success was chronicled in a hip-hop track released by local rapper Timaro, which included the lyric “There’s never been anyone like Suleiman Kerimov” and whose video featured the star-studded Anzhi squad – Roberto Carlos and Eto’o front and centre – bouncing gleefully to the beat. Even a visibly sheepish Hiddink was roped in to give a thumbs-up to camera. 

That summer saw the off-field momentum continue apace with the big-money arrivals of Lacina Traoré, the hulking Ivorian prodigy, and Lassana Diarra, the much-hyped “new Makélélé” from Real Madrid, as well as the promised launch of a new youth academy, unveiled with the hope of mining Dagestan’s 50,000 sq km for raw talent. Kerimov had turned his cash-hose on to full blast, and it wasn’t just players that wanted a piece of the action. “Big money attracts shady people,” said Slavov, “and there was always agents running around, people who wanted to earn some millions. It was like we were in the wild west and someone had found a gold mine.” 

Under Hiddink, the team’s momentum showed no sign of stopping. His first full season kicked off in style, with a single defeat in their first 12 league games taking Anzhi to the top of the table. An autumn wobble – five points from 12 – was ended with a win against Amkar Perm, a Siberian club of which Kerimov was once part-owner. The game was level at 1-1 late on, when Amkar players appeared to begin misplacing passes straight to their opponents with alarming frequency. Anzhi got a stoppage-time winner, and bookmakers refused to pay out. A former Anzhi defender was among those to have placed unusually large bets on the result.

Behind the scenes, egos were colliding: specifically those of captain, manager and superstar striker. With Roberto Carlos’s role now falling somewhere between player, coach and boardroom suit, Eto’o apparently craved something greater than mere star-signing status. “I've always liked Samuel Eto’o,” recalled Roberto Carlos in 2013, “but he always thinks of himself, not the group. There came a point when he wanted to control the club, taking my place and that of the coach. He did everything at Anzhi except play football.” 

To the outside observer, however, Eto’o was doing just fine. He and Traoré were averaging a goal a game between them and, most importantly, Anzhi were making themselves heard in Europe. A 6-0 aggregate demolition of AZ Alkmaar had taken them into the Europa League proper and only a stoppage-time equaliser from Antonio Di Natale prevented Anzhi triumphing in their first group fixture, away at Udinese, after Traoré had rocketed them ahead from an impossible angle. When Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool arrived in Russia for perhaps the highest-profile match in Anzhi’s history, the hosts rose to the occasion thanks to another moment of magic from Traoré, who lifted the ball first over his marker and then the keeper for the game’s only goal. A fortnight later Udinese were put to the sword, Eto’o and Samba doing the business this time, to leave the Russians top of the table. They had been put in the group of death and qualified with a game to spare. 

The people of Makhachkala, however, were left to watch it all from afar: Anzhi were forced to play their home fixtures in Moscow after a Uefa ruling deemed Makhachkala too unsafe to host Europa League matches. It led to a singularly strange scenario: the capital’s marginalised Dagestani migrant population, given a rare chance to see their team in the flesh, duly flocked to the fixtures in their droves, but also keen to attend were a significant number of native Muscovites who – angered that a club from the Caucasus was playing in their city – turned up to cheer on Anzhi’s opponents. Both factions would convene in the home section. 

The wins kept coming, Hannover the victims in the first knockout round, and when the European run came to an abrupt end with a 93rd-minute Papiss Cissé header at St James’ Park, any sorrows were quickly curtailed by a stunning 1-0 win over Zenit in the semi-final of the Russian Cup, Eto’o rifling home before a goalkeeping masterclass from Vladimir Gabulov secured a famous win at the home of the reigning champions. 

By this stage yet another mega-money signing had been procured in the form of the playmaker Willian, who had dazzled in the Champions League as the creative hub of free-flowing Shakhtar Donetsk. "I've earned quite a lot of money in Donetsk,” said the Brazilian, who cost the then-staggering fee of €35m. “But the time for change has come. My conversation with Suleiman Kerimov decided everything. The management really want to create a serious football infrastructure in Dagestan, to lift the game in the republic to a higher level." Chelsea and Tottenham were among the clubs he turned down in favour of Anzhi.

Anzhi’s title charge fell away after the winter break but the season nonetheless ended with the club’s best-ever league finish, third, secured with a 2-1 win over Lokomotiv Moscow – hours after a pair of car bombings had killed three and injured dozens on the streets of Makhachkala. Still to come was arguably the biggest occasion in the club’s history: the Russian Cup final. Anzhi had reached the final once before, when as underdogs they lost on penalties to Lokomotiv in 2002, but this time, against CSKA Moscow, they went into the game with a genuine hope of winning their first major piece of silverware. CSKA went ahead in the first half before Diarra, signed as a midfield water-carrier, pulled off a step over on the edge of the box and picked out the top corner with an astonishing left-footed pile driver. It wasn’t quite enough: the game went to a shootout, where a miss from Zhirkov proved crucial, but pulses had again been quickened and by now there was little doubt that Kerimov’s funds were firing Anzhi towards dreamland. 

It was a huge positive effect for Dagestan,” the club’s general director, German Chistyakov, said in an interview conducted via email. “In the first seasons we became a phenomenal case of how football can change an atmosphere in a big region, a depressive one. People were so happy because for the first time in their lives, the world started to mention Dagestan not because of explosives or terrorist attacks but because of the football, players and coaches. It was great. I do not know many such examples.” 

Then came the summer of discontent.

It’s fair to say that the trading of inorganic fertiliser compounds rarely makes much of an impact on the world of European club football. But in the summer of 2013 a sudden splintering of the potash economy sent the sport’s transfer market spinning into frenzied action.

In early August it emerged that Uralkali, the giant fertiliser company co-owned by Kerimov, was at the heart of an international financial scandal. Without warning, the company had severed a trade agreement with a business partner in Belarus, breaking what had in effect been a long-running cartel and sparking a global pricing war. Uralkali saw £5.5bn wiped off its stock market valuation overnight. Kerimov was put on an international wanted list by Belarusian authorities. And Anzhi had their budget slashed by two thirds. “Having analysed the club's recent sporting results, the decision has been taken to work on a new long-term strategy for the club,” read a terse statement.

There was never any official acknowledgment of a connection between the events – a “sudden decline in Kerimov’s health” was the reason the club gave for his downsizing the budget – but the timing, with the scandal erupting exactly a week beforehand, was hard to ignore. 

And the timing could hardly have been worse. A month earlier, the ribbons had been cut on the Anzhi Arena, the all-seater 26,000-capacity stadium promised by Kerimov upon his purchase, its grand opening marked with an all-night party featuring performances from Cher and Flo Rida (clearly a Kerimov favourite), the new ground now dominating a desolate skyline. (“It’s crazy seeing that stadium in the Makhachkala landscape,” laughs one former player. “In the middle of a desert, basically, with no lights. An absurd scene.”) Yet three weeks after that, Hiddink had tendered his resignation – just six weeks after signing a contract extension – with speculation mounting that he may be in line for the vacant Barcelona post. Roberto Carlos had departed the month before to coach in Turkey. Hiddink left a week before the Uralkali scandal broke. Perhaps he sensed what was coming.

As soon as Kerimov made his announcement about refinancing, chaos commenced, with reports suggesting that the entire squad bar none had been placed on the transfer list. Rene Meulensteen, the former assistant to Alex Ferguson who had taken over from Hiddink, was shown the door after just 16 days in the job, with the club director Konstantin Remchukov taking to Twitter to announce that “many expensive players will leave”. The confusion was compounded a few hours later, when a club statement assured: “There is no discussion of any kind of mass selling-off of the football players discussed in the media. The club will respect all the contractual obligations of its players."

It was weapons-grade nonsense. Within a month of the announcement, the club had parted ways with Boussoufa, João Carlos, Diarra, Zhirkov, Willian and Eto’o, all auctioned off in the fire sale to end all fire sales. “At first nobody could believe that the fairytale was over,” says Kasúmova. “Everyone thought Kerimov had temporary problems, that we had to wait a little and everything would be good.” 

Such hopes were held in vain, as the investor whose patience cost him during the 2008 crisis appeared to have learned his lesson. This time there was no such waiting around. Igor Denisov, signed the previous month from Zenit, departed having made just three appearances. Most absurd of all was the case of Aleksandr Kokorin, the great hope of Russian football who had arrived that summer from Dinamo in a move that made him the third-highest paid player in the league. Having been cast as a traitor and a mercenary in the eyes of his former fans, he promptly found himself being sold back to Dinamo, six weeks after leaving. “I do not want to discuss my scandalous transfer,” he said on his return. He hadn’t kicked a ball for Anzhi.

If the impression to the outside observer was of a club in disarray, the experience for those on the inside was much the same. “I was told they wanted to restructure the club,” said Vadim Demidov, who joined that summer from Eintracht Frankfurt. “More towards younger players, not the biggest names. In my opinion the owner was tired of the star players and of paying so much for so little. But I think I was one of 12 new players during that transfer window, and we all joined right at the end. It became a real freak show.”

Players were still being signed on the condition that they would live and train in Moscow, but they were arriving to a different reality altogether. “It was more or less chaos, nobody really knew what was happening,” says Demidov. “At first there were rumours that maybe the team would move back to Makhachkala, but nobody knew for sure. Then we understood quickly that this team was going to be based more and more in Makhachkala – we started staying there more, for three or four days at a time. Most of us had joined expecting to live in Moscow, and had based our families there.”

Samba and Traoré had been the only two star names not to be sold off in the summer, but both made a beeline for the exit at the first chance thereafter. Traoré departed for another oligarch-funded project in Monaco while Samba found a club willing to match his eye-watering salary in Harry Redknapp’s relegation-threatened QPR. "In my view QPR have lost their minds,” said an Anzhi director once the sale had gone through. "When they agreed to pay his release fee we wept.”

Among the players, confusion reigned. “It was so unclear what was happening, even on a day-to-day basis,” said Demidov. “We didn’t know when we had time off, didn’t know where we would train. Even if it was in Moscow it could be on the other side of the city – which could mean three hours of traffic. Not many players could focus on training when they didn’t know where and when they were next training. At one stage we went to Turkey for a two-week training camp, with one or two days’ notice. It was chaos – unbearable.”

The mayhem off the pitch was reflected in desperate struggles on it. Having finished third the previous campaign, a star-shorn Anzhi side took until their 20th league game of the 2013-14 season to get their first win. If the writing had been on the wall from the start, by winter it was in block capitals and underlined. The season ended with the club rock bottom, miles adrift of their ostensible rivals. No player in the squad had scored more than two league goals. Anzhi were relegated in truly abject fashion. The following day, the club was hit with a €2m fine for breaching FFP rules. 

Yet Anzhi were well accustomed to playing the role of yo-yo club and responded accordingly. With the seasoned Sergei Tashuyev now at the helm, a squad fully devoid of any A-listers picked up the pieces and rallied. Yannick Boli, a former PSG trainee acquired in the summer for a knock-down price, ended the season as the division's top scorer as Anzhi carved a no-nonsense path back into the Premier League. They were promoted with two games to spare having scored the most goals in the division. They mightn’t have had quite the same cast, but they were still putting on a show.

Yet what should have been a season of uplift had five months earlier been blighted by brutal tragedy. On 3 January 2015 Gasan Magomedov, a 20-year-old Anzhi midfielder, was hit by machine-gun fire in his car on the streets of Makhachkala, outside his parents’ house, and died on the way to hospital. "We grieve together with everyone who was dear to Gasan," said the chief executive Sergey Korablev. "I hope the police quickly find the killers and they suffer just punishment." Such hopes, inevitably, came to nothing. Five years on, the murder remains officially motiveless, Magomedov merely another of the countless casualties of Caucasus violence. It was the grimmest possible way to mark the season when Anzhi finally relocated the squad full-time to Dagestan, the club’s rightful home.

Back in the Russian Premier League, a newly modest Anzhi were re-homed in the division's lower echelons, battling manfully against the looming spectre of relegation. They were welcomed back to the top flight, in their first away game, with a banner unfurled by CSKA Moscow fans that bore the words “Animal planet” over the Anzhi crest, an open slur against Dagestan’s ethnic minorities. Their campaign ended in the tension of a relegation play-off, which they won 3-0 against Volgar Astrakhan, but Anzhi were surviving on a shoestring – in the five transfer windows since the austerity drive began, the club had spent less than £2m in transfer fees. Kerimov had not so much tightened his belt as clamped his trousers in place with an industrial vice. It seemed inevitable that sooner or later he would take himself out of the picture completely.

That day duly arrived in December 2016. Four days after Christmas, Kerimov departed as suddenly as he’d appeared, handing over the keys to the businessman Osman Kadiev, who had “guaranteed the settlement of the debts and fulfilment of all obligations to Anzhi at the time of the agreement’s signing”, according to a brief club statement. “I haven’t seen Suleiman in a long time, maybe one-and-a-half or two years,” said the defender Ali Gadzhibekov of an owner who used to pay regular visits to the dressing room. 

“We made a lot of mistakes,” said the former general director Chistyakov in hindsight. “But it’s normal. We were pressed by ambitions of the owner in one side, and having no time to build every detail like it should be from the other side. The team were almost living in a plane, which destroyed many things, you can imagine. To rule a team with such different personalities when they come in so suddenly – you need time, but nobody gave us the time. There were many mistakes, but no regrets.” 

When Kerimov sold up, he left the club more or less as he'd found it: hovering two places above the relegation spots, the cup final and star-studded title charge a distant, hallucinatory memory. Anzhi's Kerimov era, which had begun in unfathomably spectacular fashion, had ended in the most discreet way imaginable. 

A few months later Kerimov was arrested in Monaco and placed under investigation for tax fraud, French authorities suspecting him of using huge amounts of undeclared cash to buy five luxury villas on the exclusive Cap d'Antibes peninsula. The case eventually collapsed amid a robust defence from the Kremlin. 

Meet the new boss. Osman Kadiev was a casino tycoon and the former president of Makhachkala’s other club, Dynamo. He had been arrested in Bulgaria in 2002 on a warrant from the FBI, who named him as one of the most prominent Russian mafia figures based abroad, and there remains an active case against him from the state of New York. In 2005, while president at Dinamo, he threatened to kill a referee during the first half of a match against Luch-Energiya Vladivostok, before visiting the officials’ dressing room at half-time flanked by armed henchmen. Later that year another half-time incident saw him and his men attack a pair of Kuban Krasnodar players in the changing room, for which he was banned from Russian football for a year. If journalistic euphemism usually describes such figures as "colourful", then Kadiev was a Jackson Pollock painting.

Perhaps more worrying for Anzhi was the fact that Kadiev's presidency of Dynamo Makhachkala had ended with the club being dissolved in 2007 after being denied a professional licence and relegated to amateur level. Banned from Russian football, he then fled to Moldova and bought a controlling stake in FC Nistru Otaci, a project which also ended with the club relegated to amateur level, never to be seen again. This track record was not lost on fans of his new club. “The reaction to his takeover was wary,” says Kasúmova. “We knew about his past with other clubs. Wherever he'd worked, the club had big problems or became broke. But of course he fed us with promises.”

Kadiev took over in the mid-season break and the winter transfer window saw Anzhi sign 25 players and bring in the journeyman manager Aleksandr Grigoryan: they effectively went into the second half of the season with an all-new squad and coach. Relegation seemed certain but a battling few months meant Anzhi avoided the drop by the skin of their teeth. Defying gravity, though, rarely proves sustainable. The following transfer window saw another 14 players come in, with 11 going the other way, and it wasn’t long before Grigoryan took it upon himself to resign on air following a meek 2-0 loss against SKA Khabarovsk, a game the squad flew through four time zones to play.

It was to be another season of attritional struggle. And in the end, Anzhi stayed up in truly inglorious style, losing their relegation play-off but being reinstated to the Premier League when it emerged that FC Amkar Perm – who had stayed up via the play-offs – would be dissolved due to crippling debt. The division’s “battle for survival” had taken on a new meaning.

It was a meaning that Anzhi would become increasingly familiar with throughout the 2018-19 season, as the now-perennial threat of relegation was soon accompanied by a far more alarming existential one. As it became clear Kadiev lacked the means to finance even a severely streamlined Anzhi operation, storm clouds gathered before a ball had been kicked, with the president openly fearing the worst. “We are very close to a very bad start to the season,” Kadiev said. “We do not hide this situation. The club does not have what we want. We will try to fix everything, but today there is no ready-made recipe.” In a desperate bailout bid, he wrote to Dagestan’s ministry of finance asking for 300 million rubles, threatening to withdraw from the Russian league if he didn’t get it. The request was denied.

“Our debt is indeed very large, and every day it is growing. Today it is more than 250 million rubles,” said the club’s general director, Oleg Flegontov. “We have not yet passed the point of no return. But it is difficult to make predictions about the future of the club.” The figure he cited – equivalent to €3.5m – would, seven years prior, have covered three months’ wages for Samuel Eto’o.

Reports detailed the players being barred from entering the stadium to train because of unpaid rent and the club struggling to pay for flights to away games – something of a problem given Russia’s sprawling geography. The team’s goalkeeper, Yuri Dupin, said the players were no longer given meals on away trips: “We have bread and mayonnaise on the plane.”

On the pitch, Anzhi began the season with a grim six-game losing streak. But then came a glimmer of hope: successive shock wins against big-city powerhouses Dinamo Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg lifted them out of the relegation spots. The latter victory came with Anzhi having been 1-0 down, reduced to 10 men and Zenit fans taunting their visitors with chants of “Conor McGregor”, the UFC fighter due to take on the Dagestani local hero Khabib Nurmagomedov the following weekend, the Irishman’s name belted out with an exaggeratedly Russian inflection. The triumph in adversity gave faint reason for optimism.

Yet it merely served to disguise what had become bedlam behind the scenes. Mohammed Rabiu, a Ghana international who re-signed for Anzhi that season, said the problem was simple: “My salary was not coming. I think it was the same with all the players, but I didn’t want to ask too many questions because I didn’t want to cause trouble for the club. But my payment would come late, sometimes not at all. In the end I had to leave.” 

The sense of fatalism was reflected in the stands, where attendances had dwindled to around 3,000 – a fifth of what they once were – turning fixtures at the 26,000-seater Anzhi Arena into an eerie spectacle. Those who did show up witnessed their team score just eight goals at home all season. Kadiev’s oft-repeated party line, “We will win with our spirit”, was repurposed by supporters as an ironic catchphrase, a gallows-humour reference to their team’s hopeless state of affairs. Relegation, when it finally came, was delivered with a 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal Tula, Anzhi sending out a patchwork team of reserves and unproven youngsters. It was watched by a mere 2,530 fans. Anzhi were down, and this time they could not cling to the corpse of another club for safety. “The club management has not yet talked about the future, there is no talk now,” said the head coach Magomed Adiyev. “The situation is such that Anzhi may not maintain professional status.” It was reported that the players had gone five months without being paid.   

Their club hurtling towards extinction, the Anzhi fans made a despairing plea to the one man they knew could help. “Dear Suleiman,” read a public statement from the Wild Division ultras alliance. “We, countrymen, fans of Anzhi football club, patriots of our native land, people for whom the words Anzhi and Dagestan are synonymous, are writing to you. We are all different, and we supported the club at different times: when the club was rich and poor, in difficult years and in good years. But there is something that unites us. For all of us, FC Anzhi is an integral part of our life and soul. Therefore, we ask you to again take the club under your wing and not let it die forever."

Their call went unheeded. Instead, Anzhi were faced with having to stump up for a licence to play in the Russian second tier – a request that proved too much for the club’s empty coffers. With more than US$1m in unpaid wages, the Russian Football Union refused Anzhi’s application, agreeing instead to grant them a license to play in the Second Division – the third tier – where the budget to be met is far less. The club that shot for the stars had been relegated twice in one summer.

Anzhi Makhachkala rose high and they fell hard. At the end of 2019 they were rock-bottom of Russia's third tier, having been hit with a six-point deduction for unpaid wages owed to Yannick Boli, the striker who once fired them into the top flight. Reports from Russia suggest they may well have played their last game at the Anzhi Arena. If they are still bottom come the end of the season, they will lose their professional status and be relegated to the Russian Amateur Football League.

It is tempting to read their story as a stark parable of our times – modern football in a nutshell – and that would hardly be inaccurate. If the sport's greatest emerging problem is the glass ceiling that keeps the established elite in place, then no club has better illustrated the wretched precariousness of what’s fast becoming the only way to pierce that barrier: a cash-rich sugar daddy can pull the plug just as quickly as he turned on the tap. And if another central debate is whether, in the age of obscene wealth and total globalisation, a football club can still claim to be a social institution, to represent its fans and its region authentically, then Anzhi – a club from an impoverished war zone that employed the world's richest player and whose squad lived 1,200 miles from its home – played out that issue on an almost cartoonish scale.

If there is an upside to the club’s plunge from grace it is that the team’s local identity has been restored. The players may not be as glamorous as they once were – only four of Anzhi’s current 29-man squad have their own Wikipedia entry – but they are all Russian nationals, mostly of Dagestani ethnicity, and almost entirely graduates of the club’s youth academy.

More immediately, Anzhi's story speaks to the desolate landscape of Russian football, where the past two years have seen the dissolution of three major clubs in Amkar Perm, Volgar Astrakhan, and FC Tosno, the latter all the more alarming for having won the Russian Cup and qualified for the Europa League just a month earlier. During that time FC Tom Tomsk, Rubin Kazan and FC Rostov have also faced similar existential threat, with players at all three going unpaid as the national sport has been swept by a poverty epidemic that has coincided jarringly with the 2018 World Cup. A decade or so after the Russian game was flying dizzyingly high, with Zenit winning the 2008 Uefa Cup and the 2018 hosting rights being dished out two years later, the outlook is bleak indeed. 

But malignant ownership and apathetic governing bodies, the twin forces that propelled Anzhi into the ground, are issues that exist well beyond Russia. “The fears about Kadiev were there from the start and they came true,” says Anzhi fan Ruslan Musaev. “He didn't support his promises about the club development with any meaningful actions, and now we're struggling. I fear we might not see the end of the season.” Those words will ring as true in Bury or Bolton as they do in Dagestan.

And as for Kerimov, he has long since receded into the background from which he appeared, last heard of in the media when French prosecutors reopened their long-running investigation into his dealings, on suspicion of complicity in tax fraud to the tune of three-quarters of a billion dollars. You imagine it pains him to watch Anzhi’s plight from afar, not least because of his own unwitting complicity in it all. “Business is not the aim of life, it’s a game," said the oligarch in 2012, back when he was spending his weekends up in the VIP box, watching Samuel Eto’o lead his hometown club on an improbable title charge. "It’s not the aim to earn more than everyone. The aim is the ability to realise ideas. To change something in the world for the better.” Certainly every Anzhi fan’s world was changed briefly for the better seven years ago, when they were afforded a glimpse of dreamland. Whether it was worth it for the nightmare that followed is another matter.

Then again, if he has no regrets then he’s not alone. “The Dagestani people still love and respect Suleiman Kerimov,” says Alina Kasúmova. “People are grateful for the fairytale. They’re grateful that the world knows about Anzhi.”