MADRID – Samuel Eto'o is at the precipice of one of the more beguiling moves in world soccer history. (Photo: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP)
Ten days ago, news broke of a deal which had the potential to shock world football. Cameroon international Samuel Eto'o, a three-time Champions League winner who finished last season with a career-high goal tally of 37 in all competitions, was reported to be mulling over a switch from Serie A side Internazionale to . . . well, a team which only the most committed football fans could even pronounce, let alone recognize.
Russian Premier League side Anzhi (pronounced "Anji") Makhachkala were Eto'o's suitors, in a deal estimated at €40 million. And while initially the news of the transfer stretched the credulity of most observers, as the days have passed since talks between Anzhi and Inter were publicly confirmed, many have come to a sober realization - there is more than a distinct possibility that one of the best strikers in the world game will swap the glamour of Milan for the backwaters of southern Russia. Or the Duomo for Dagestan, if you will.
To understand how a club which finished 11th in Russia's 16-team Premier League and has only ever taken part in European competition once - losing to Rangers in a UEFA Cup First Round tie back in 2001 - is able to bid for 30-year-old Eto'o, you have to go back to January of this year.
Up until that point, Anzhi had spent most of its 20-year existence as a professional side on the fringes of the Russian game. They are based in Makhachkala, the capital of the federal republic of Dagestan, considered one of Russia's most dangerous regions. Neighboring Chechnya may have grabbed most of the headlines during Russia's bloody civil conflict between Kremlin loyalists and Islamic separatists over the last two decades, but Dagestan has been equally affected by guerilla fighting, military incursion and terrorist reprisals.
That conflict, plus the economic backwardness of the region (the average monthly salary for a schoolteacher in Dagestan is $80) meant that for years Anzhi flitted between Russia's top two divisions, rarely making waves.
That all changed eight months ago, when it was announced that Suleyman Kerimov, a native of Dagestan who had amassed an $8 billion fortune trading stocks and shares, would be investing in the club. Now based in Switzerland, Kerimov's stated aim was to build not just a successful football team, but also create a significant social institution in the war-torn region.
"This is an important and serious project," the club's chief executive German Chistyakov emphasized back in February after Kerimov's arrival. "If he [Kerimov] wanted just to play about in football, he would have just bought a wide-screen TV, FIFA-2011 and played at leisure. But the project at Anzhi is a serious plan to do something important for the whole of Dagestan."
Kerimov began with a bang, bringing in a trio of Brazilians. Striker Diego Tardelli, 26, came in from Atletico Mineiro; promising 23-year-old Corinthinans midfielder Jucilei was brought in; and Roberto Carlos, now 38 but once the finest left-back in the world game, also arrived from Corinthians. Mbark Boussoufa, a Moroccan international forward, arrived shortly after from Anderlecht.
Early results have been impressive too. With 20 rounds of the Russian season played Anzhi are in sixth place, nine points behind leaders CSKA but comfortably challenging for the European spots and - whisper it - possibly even the Russian league title. The club dominate the back pages on a daily basis, and previous wild talk about them becoming a powerhouse, not just within Russia but in European football, is slowly gaining credibility.
When the summer transfer window opened this month, the checkbook was out again, this time for PSV Eindhoven's Hungarian winger Balazs Dzsudzsak and Chelsea left-sided player Yury Zhirkov. If he lands Eto'o, Kerimov's total spending since taking control of Anzhi will break the $100 million barrier.
But with time still ticking away on this most explosive of transfer deals, there are suggestions that the Cameroonian may be having second thoughts over the move.
For one, it's hard to reconcile Eto'o's personal ambitions to play at the highest level with a move to Russia - no matter how upwardly-mobile the club in question. Forgoing Champions League football at the peak of his career would be a serious change of direction for the striker. Eto'o has previously indicated that playing in Europe's premier club competition is by no means a priority for him - "what matters now in my career is that I am in a city where I can live well, play good football and have fun," he said back in 2009 - but that's far easier said than done.
Then there is the security situation in Dagestan. In 2008, a sniper assassinated Dagestan's Interior Minister Adilgerey Magomedtagirov; in March 2010, two bombs - one set off 20 minutes after the other, in order to kill those attending the scene - caused 12 fatalities in the town of Kizlyar; and Dagestanis have been implicated in the 2010 Moscow Metro bombing and the Domodedovo Airport bombing which occurred earlier this year. Indeed, according to the President of the Republic of Dagestan himself, Magomedsalam Magomedov, as of July 2010 there had been over 500 fatalities and 1000 wounded in some 842 attacks carried out on Dagestani territory since 2000.
But if Eto'o is concerned his fears ought to be allayed by the fact that the Anzhi players hardly spend any time in Dagestan at all. The squad live and train 1000 miles away in Moscow, flying in to Makhachkala to play their home matches on a private jet chartered by Kerimov before being whisked away again. Anzhi's players enjoy a comfort blanket which allows them to ignore the ongoing problems in the region.
And then there is the issue of racism. Twice since his arrival in Russia, Roberto Carlos has been subjected to racial taunts - the second of which, at an away game in the city of Samara, saw him walk off the pitch in disgust after a fan in the home section threw a banana at him. The Russian authorities have made mealy-mouthed statements condemning the assailant, but have so far failed to find and ban him. Racism is by no means unique to football stadiums Russia, but the country does have history in this regard - a notorious incident in 2007, in which Spartak Moscow fans held up a banner directed at their own player, Brazilian striker Welliton, which read "Go home monkey", is the starkest of examples.
Throughout his career, Eto'o has sought to deal with racism head on. Following incidents at Barcelona and at Inter the striker has made his feelings very clear - he will not turn the other cheek at fans or opposition players who resort to racial abuse.
"We can't wait until some crazy fan jumps from his seat and kills a black player before measures are taken," he told CNN in 2008. "The players are revolted by it and we try to help each other. But the authorities must find a way to set an example."
But though Eto'o may be hesitating, there are compensatory factors which may finally convince him to sign on the dotted line for Anzhi in the coming days. There's no doubting the ambitions of the club. Just eight months in, their improvement on the field, coupled with the caliber of players they have attracted, suggests Anzhi are serious about becoming a footballing force.
Defender Benoit Angbwa, a team-mate of Eto'o's in the Cameroon national side, has been working furiously to convince his fellow countryman of the scale of the project.
"I told him about the players, the club, the training base, about Anzhi's potential and other things," Angbwa revealed this week. "He took me at my word and then had a chat with Suleyman Kerimov."
And then there's the money. Where Eto'o is concerned, it seems, Kerimov's generosity knows no bounds. The Anzhi owner is said to have offered the Cameroonian wages of $400,000 per week, making him the highest-paid player in the world. If Eto'o is skeptical that such an eye-popping sum will be honored he should just speak to Roberto Carlos, who, on top of his substantial wages, earlier this year was presented with a new car on his birthday by Kerimov: a $2 million Bugatti Veyron.
Eto'o has turned down lucrative deals in the past - not least a bizarre offer of $25 million made back in 2008 for a three-month spell at Uzbekistan league side Bunyodkor - but these are riches which arguably no other club in the world could offer him, particularly given Russia's flat 13% rate of income tax.
There is still some way to go before this mega-deal goes through. Eto'o's medical was adjourned for another day on Thursday as Inter and Anzhi thrashed out an agreement on a transfer fee. But if it does (and with so much already invested in the deal from all parties it would take a serious change of heart for it not to) then make no mistake: This would go down as one of the biggest transfers in football history - not just in terms of the finances involved, but in the seismic shift in football's power-base that it would entail.
If you hadn't yet heard of Anzhi, you're going to be hearing a lot more about them if Eto'o signs on. Better get practicing the pronunciation.