Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
Ronald de Boer and Rangers (eventually) faced Anzhi in September 2001
It is in Moscow, not in their home town, that Anzhi Makhachkala will host Newcastle United this evening. The Russian capital lies some 1,250 miles north from Makhachkala, a city of 600,000 on the Caspian Sea’s western shores in Dagestan where Guus Hiddink’s side usually play their home matches.
It’s also where Anzhi wanted to face Newcastle, Liverpool and all of their other overseas opponents, but Uefa deemed the volatile north Caucasus republic too dangerous, and instead ordered the club to fulfil their 'home' Europa League fixtures elsewhere. So tonight’s game, despite Anzhi’s protestations earlier this season, takes place at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Much has been written of the terrorist threat in the region since Suleiman Kerimov’s wealth catapulted Anzhi on to the global stage. It is, for example, well documented that the star-studded squad reside in Moscow and only flies to Makhachkala the day before matches. But this is only their second European campaign. Security issues have afflicted them since an incredibly controversial Uefa Cup debut 12 years ago, when Dick Advocaat’s Rangers dug their heels in and refused to visit Dagestan for a first-round tie in September 2001.
Initially, Uefa granted Anzhi permission to play at their Dinamo Stadium – around £1 million was spent sprucing it up for what would have been the biggest match in the club’s short history – but Rangers were not happy. That was in stark contrast to Dagestanis. The tie prompted hitherto unparalleled interest in a team only founded in 1991, and some 400,000 people attempted to buy tickets for the first leg at Anzhi’s 17,000-capacity ground, even if they were priced at three times the cost of a league game (£4). Anzhi had qualified by virtue of finishing fourth the previous season with a budget of around £6m (just shy of what modern day Anzhi star Samuel Eto’o earns four months).
Problems soon arose, however. After all, Grozny – the capital of war-torn Chechnya – was just 100 miles away and the conflict there had, on occasion, spilt over into Dagestan. The region had witnessed a number of bombings since the second Chechen War began in 1999, and foreigners were seen as lucrative targets for kidnappers.
"We have advised people not to travel," the Foreign Office said at the time. "We cannot stop people going to watch the game, but they should think very hard about it. People should check their travel insurance very carefully because many insurers will not insure you if we have advised you not to go." Rangers were eventually quoted an eye-watering figure of £10m for their expensively-assembled squad.
But representatives did fly out to Dagestan for a reconnaissance trip. It wasn't good news. The situation was such that the club would have had to bring their own toilet paper, bedding, soap and towels. Even the prospect of trying some of Russia’s best cognac or its famed sturgeon steaks couldn’t sway them. Visa problems also meant that head scout Ewan Chester was unable to see Anzhi play, so instead Advocaat relied on videos.
A bomb actually exploded on a disused railway line while the delegation was en route from Moscow. Rangers promptly announced that they would not play in Dagestan, much to the annoyance of Russians. "Those gentlemen from Glasgow visited Makhachkala, supped our expensive cognac and praised the atmosphere in the city," Vladimir Rodionov, the Russian Football Union’s secretary told the Scottish Daily Mail. “But I warned the Anzhi management: ‘Don't listen to them, they will talk in a different way as soon as they get home’. That is how it happened. They declared how dangerous Makhachkala is. They still can't understand that Dagestan is not Chechnya where British heads are cut off.”
There was further bombing that September, but Uefa stood by their decision, despite the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the United States that had heightened fears.
“Taking full consideration of all the advice available, a team cannot at this time be sent to Makhachkala for safety reasons,” Rangers chairman David Murray had said. “We have advised Uefa that, although our travel plans have been cancelled, we could still be in a position to travel, to participate in the match assuming a safe venue can be confirmed." He added: “We have no alternative but to pursue our appeals by referring this issue to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. The safety of the club's employees remains our foremost consideration.” Had it not been for Uefa suspending all European football that week, Rangers would have found themselves expelled from the competition.
Understandably, they were keen not to set a precedent whereby clubs could simply avoid playing in certain areas, but eventually Uefa yielded. It was decided that instead the tie would be a one-off match in Poland. Anzhi were fuming. “I consider Rangers have behaved very badly,” coach Alexander Markarov declared. “They have lost the respect of our people. We would have welcomed them and there would have been no problems. Maybe their coach Dick Advocaat was afraid, but they would have been respected guests. Our fans were looking forward to a great occasion against a good team that boasts players such as Stefan Klos, Ronald de Boer and Tore André Flo.
“Dagestan is one of the most hospitable regions of Russia and we have 30 nationalities including eight Scots there. We had hoped to play the first game at home in front of a big crowd and take a lead to Glasgow. The people are not happy. But many of them, including the country's president, came to the airport to see us off. We have brought only a few supporters, but I understand more will try and make it to Warsaw by coach. This is our first tie in Europe and although it is unfortunate that it is a single game, perhaps we will win it and then be happy to have one-off situations all the way to the final. The players know what is required and we have offered them each $100,000 to get through.”
And so it was to Poland that Gers fans travelled on 27 September to see their team play at the mostly empty Wojska Polskiego Stadium, rather than a sold-out Dinamo Stadium in Makhachkala. Rangers found their midtable opposition a tricky side and struggled to really impose themselves on the game. It wasn't until six minutes from time that the sparse crowd saw Bert Konterman finally make the breakthrough when his low, deflected drive from 25 yards found its way past goalkeeper Aleksandr Zhidkov to settle the long-awaited tie.
Anzhi were out, but the real losers in the whole affair had been Uefa. The security situation in the north Caucasus hardly came out of the blue – the Russian season in those days followed the calendar year – so they had an ample period in which to reach a verdict. Even playing somewhere like Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia where both Rangers and Liverpool visited just a few years earlier for European ties against Alania would have been a sensible compromise. Uefa dealt with the matter slightly more efficiently this season, but with Anzhi’s rise (and a new stadium on the way), coupled with that of Terek Grozny in neighbouring Chechnya, it is an issue they could often find themselves revisiting.
Anzhi Makhachkala 0-1 RangersUefa Cup, first round (27 September 2001)Anzhi Makhachkala Aleksandr Zhidkov, Sergei Yaskovich, Andrei Gordeyev, Ruslan Agalarov, Narvik Sirkhaev, Magomed Adiev, Murad Ramazanov, Arsen Akayev (Ratko Nikolić 87), Michael Bilong, Edu, Ilya Tsymbalar. Unused substitutes: Marek Holly, Yves Ngangue, Sergei Ivanov, Dzenan Hodzic, Valeri Alekseyev, Sergei Armishev.Rangers Stefan Klos, Fernando Ricksen, Craig Moore, Lorenzo Amoruso, Arthur Numan, Barry Ferguson, Tore André Flo (Claudio Caniggia 57), Neil McCann (Peter Løvenkrands 63), Ronald de Boer, Bert Konterman, Russell Latapy (Stephen Hughes 90). Unused substitutes: Billy Dodds, Andrei Kanchelskis, Jesper Christiansen, Tony Vidmar.Goals: Bert Konterman 84’.
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