The striker says he joined the club from Dagestan to bring hope to the southern Russian region
When you earn €423,000 a week and are the highest-paid player in football history, the downside is that people are going to want to talk about it and, more often than not, jump to unfavourable conclusions. Samuel Eto’o has heard the questions and the assumptions many times.
The intensity of them is magnified as his salary is net, netto, après impôt and the club that pays him is not one of the established, trophy-chasing elite. It is Anzhi Makhachkala, the team from civil war-torn Dagestan, which has been funded since January by Suleiman Kerimov, the local boy turned billionaire oligarch.
Eto’o does not want to talk about it. He attempts to shrug it off by saying that he earned pots of cash anyway at Internazionale, the club that he left for Anzhi in August; Kerimov paid a fee of €28m (£24m) for him. It is clear the interview will not last very long if money is a principal theme. Eto’o is passionate and engaging but he has a nice line in latently hostile defensiveness.
And so this icon of modern football sets about explaining his reasons for leaving San Siro and the pursuit of silverware in favour of a start-up project, which is underpinned by social and philanthropic goals. Eto’o has the league titles (three in Spain; one in Italy); the Champions Leagues (three) and the African Cups of Nations with Cameroon (two). He has never before attempted to drive the regeneration of a region through one of his clubs.
“I am really adventurous, that’s something that you need to know about me,” Eto’o said. “I left Cameroon when I was 13 years old and I’ve lived more in Europe than Africa. The question for me in the summer was whether I should stay at the club where I would be playing or if I should look for a new opportunity and look to the future. I asked myself as well whether I could give faith and hope to a region, and really create something.”
He felt that he could. “The only thing that I want to give is hope and we all know that hope lets us live,” he said. “There is nothing more valuable than to be healthy and to have the hope of living a better day tomorrow.”
The people of Dagestan would not appear to be living such great days at present. The impoverished southern Russian province, of which Makhachkala is the capital city, sees almost daily attacks from rebels who want to build a separate Islamist state. The target of the bombings and sniper shootings are the police and religious leaders sanctioned by the Russian state but, inevitably, civilians have been caught in the crossfire. In the first half of this year, 204 people were killed and 149 injured, which has helped to make Dagestan Russia’s most violent republic. High levels of unemployment and corruption number among the ills.
Anzhi’s players live and train in Moscow. They fly in and out of Makhachkala for home matches in the same way English clubs travel to and from Champions League away fixtures, with the bolt back to the airport after full-time very much a feature. The club, though, say Makhachkala does not yet have adequate training facilities and it is a necessary short-term measure to base the squad in Moscow. With Kerimov’s backing, the facilities will come, together with a new stadium. The project remains in its infancy.
The club also insist that there are no security issues relating to the players and Eto’o is slightly huffy about the preconceptions of people who have never visited the area. “I can only say what I have lived and experienced,” he said. “And the majority of people who have been to Makhachkala have come back with different opinions.
“It’s a relaxed city but very lively, like many of the capitals in the world. At first sight, you would never say that there are political problems. I have had the chance to discover a really beautiful region in Dagestan and, so far, my experiences have been really nice. I have my bodyguard but he is with me in London or Paris or wherever so there is nothing special or different in Makhachkala.”
Nationalist sentiment has built in Russia’s heartland and there is a view that Dagestan ought to be cut off, that the state would be better off without it. A section of the national team’s support has barracked the midfielder Yuri Zhirkov for his decision to join Anzhi from Chelsea in August, with racial tensions motivating the spite. Russian football has faced serious race problems and Eto’o, who has campaigned against discrimination, might consider the fight against the issue to be part of his mission.
The notion that success on the football field can help to erase deep-rooted social problems is open to debate. But what is clear is that Kerimov’s project, with Eto’o as its poster boy and persuasive orator, has brought the region and its various issues to prominence.
“I am really happy to see that there is an interest to follow me and to discuss the reasons why I came to the club because the first goal was to bring interest from Europe,” Eto’o said at Puma’s launch of the kits for the African Cup of Nations. “The club is not only a football club, it represents the whole region and it represents the hope of everything.
“I must say, though, that I am not a politician and I don’t know how to do politics. I am a footballer, I know how to play football and I know how to manage projects in the area of football. This is what I want to limit myself to.”
Kerimov’s first major signing was the former Brazil left-back Roberto Carlos in February – he is also now the joint-caretaker manager – and the owner has since discussed moves for an array of world stars including Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin, Neymar, Nicolas Anelka and even Lionel Messi. It was put to Roberto Carlos that it was crazy trying to sign Messi from Barcelona. “Yeah, but you don’t know Suleiman Kerimov,” he replied. Anzhi have shown an interest in the England manager, Fabio Capello.
There have been comparisons to Manchester City, another club with fabulous financial backing and the desire to gatecrash the elite in a hurry. City were forced to pay wildly inflated wages to attract the players that they needed; Anzhi have simply upped the ante with Eto’o’s annual €22m.
The Russian Premier League finished at the beginning of this month, with Anzhi in a disappointing eighth position. Eto’o scored seven goals in nine appearances. But the league is in a period of transition, as it switches its schedule to fall into line with most of the rest of Europe and so the 16-team division is set to divide into two mini-leagues, with the top eight clubs to chase, after the winter break, the country’s three Champions League spots and two Europa League places. Anzhi’s anticipated January transfer window splurge could yet propel them into the 2012-13 Champions League.
“We are striving to be like Barcelona, they are the inspiration,” Eto’o said. “Barcelona are the reference point in football today, not Manchester City. It is a matter of opinion whether City provide the closest parallel to Anzhi … money should not be the reason to compare these clubs. The goal at Anzhi is to achieve something from a region that has not been explored and to bring this team, through a nice football philosophy, to a better standing in the world of football. And that is it.”
Cynicism may chase Eto’o on his adventure but to him, there is a priceless quality about the creation of something fresh.