Soccer politics: Anzhi Makhachkala and the dangers of Dagestan

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Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala’s fortunes continued to deteriorate on Monday after authorities in Belarus issued a warrant for its owner’s arrest. Suleyman Kerimov, who is also the majority shareholder and co-owner of Uralkali, a Moscow-based potash company, is under investigation for corruption.

Kerimov lost a reported $375 million when Uralkali’s stock plummeted in August, prompting him to put every potentially lucrative player on the squad up for sale and decrease the team’s budget by $50 to $70 million a year. The club’s two biggest names, Samuel Eto’o and Willian, both joined fellow Russian-tycoon-turned-soccer-owner Roman Abramovich at Chelsea.

Officials in Belarus have now put Kerimov on Interpol’s most wanted list, after Uralkali CEO Vladislav Baumgertner was charged and detained in Belarus in late August. Russian news agency RT reported that Baumgertner is currently being held at a KGB jail in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, possibly in solitary confinement.

Relations between Russia and Belarus have been strained since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the Uralkali situation acting as another flash point.

As with most clubs and countries in Eastern Europe, to understand the politics of soccer, understanding the machinations of government is vital. Particularly in former Soviet spaces, the two have always been and will likely always be intertwined.

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The location of Makhachkala and the region of Dagestan (in red) on a map. (Source: Google Maps)

Kerimov took over Anzhi in January 2011, investing heavily to turn it into one of Europe’s superclubs before the recent reversal. Many fans in the area saw the club as a constructed distraction from the civil war in the Dagestan region, a conflict that has hampered Anzhi’s efforts to play home matches this year.

The team lives and trains just outside Moscow and flies to home games in Makhachkala under heavy guard, and in June, UEFA banned all competitive matches in continental competitions from taking place in Dagestan during the 2013/14 season. In the 2001/02 UEFA Cup, Anzhi had to play Rangers FC of Scotland in Warsaw, Poland, because of the unstable situation in neighboring Chechnya.

Now, that situation has shifted slightly east.

The region of Dagestan hit headlines in the United States after the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line. The two suspects in the attack lived briefly in Dagestan before coming to the U.S.

While Anzhi Makhachkala club officials have claimed that soccer can change the situation in Dagestan, many others in the region say the club’s exploits are meant to be a diversion from the widespread unemployment, corruption and sheer poverty of the area.

Some suspect that Kerimov’s heavy initial investment was nothing more than a public-relations scheme from the Kremlin to purify the area’s image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just 600 miles away from Makhachkala by road on the Black Sea coast. Two years ago, the BBC declared Dagestan “the most dangerous place in Europe,” citing the almost-daily bombings, shootouts and perpetual ruin.

As far as distractions go, Anzhi’s fortunes since Kerimov bought the club have proven useful. Top-five league finishes, deep runs in the Russian Cup and a Round of 16 appearance in the Europa League represented the club’s two best seasons in the top division since Anzhi’s inception in 1991.

But with Kerimov taking a public step back from the club and his recent off-field business troubles coming to light, the distraction may be over, despite a draw in the 2013/14 Europa League that includes Tottenham Hotspur.

Just as the music stops and the lights come back on at the end of a long night out, the party seems to be over in Makhachkala. And the situation outside is nothing to celebrate.

Tammy Abraham rescues England in Toulon opener

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It took a late finish to nab three points on Sunday, but England’s title defence at the Toulon Tournament is off an running.

[ MORE: Bale brace guides Real Madrid past Liverpool ]

The Three Lions’ Under-21 squad picked up a 2-1 win in their Group A opener against China, after having fallen behind to the Asian nation inside the opening half hour.

England, winners of the last two editions of the competition, conceded in the 20th minute to Yan Dinghao, and went into the halftime break behind 1-0.

Manager Paul Simpson and his side came out strong in the second stanza, though, and found an equalizer five minutes in through Middlesbrough defender Dael Fry‘s header.

It seemed as though England would be destined for a point, however, Tammy Abraham‘s tap-in finish in the 85th minute ensured a crucial victory to open the tournament for the Three Lions.

England will round out Group A with matches against Mexico and Qatar on March 28 and June 1, respectively.

At the Toulon Tournament, the three group winners automatically reach the semifinals, while the best second-place nation also receives a bid into the final four.

Ben Olsen confirms mutual interest from both sides for Wayne Rooney

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As a move to Major League Soccer becomes more of a reality, D.C. United’s manager has confirmed the team’s interest in a legendary Premier League goalscorer.

[ MORE: Armenteros scores twice, as Timbers win sixth straight ]

Following Saturday night’s 1-1 draw with Los Angeles FC, Ben Olsen told media that there is legitimate interest from him and his side in Wayne Rooney, who traveled to the United States earlier in the week to visit Washington D.C. and the club’s new Audi Field.

“There is interest in Wayne Rooney from our end and I think there is interest from his end too,” Olsen said. “I hope it can get over the line because he’s a very good player who can help us. He would be a great player for this league.”

Although ongoing negotiations appear to be progressing in a positive manner, no deal has been struck between D.C. and Rooney’s camp yet, to which Olsen said he and his team have to continue as they have until the Everton forward completes a move.

“Nothing is done, so I don’t want to get into talk of arrival until he actually arrives,” Olsen added.

“Nothing is ever done in this world and when you’re looking at a deal of this scope and size. We’ll see, but hopefully we can get it done.”

Armenteros scores twice, Timbers win 6th straight

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Samuel Armenteros scored twice and the Portland Timbers extended their franchise-record winning streak to six with a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Rapids on Saturday night.

[ MORE: Techera hat-trick for Whitecaps; Gordon plays hero for Fire ]

Armenteros flicked Sebastian Blanco‘s pass around defender Danny Wilson and then beat him to it for a chip finish that opened the scoring for Portland (6-3-2) in the 29th minute.

Julio Cascante gave one back to Colorado (2-7-2) in the 31st with an own goal on a stab attempt to clear away Edgar Castillo’s cross.

Armenteros made it 2-1 in the 37th minute, heading back Tim Howard‘s attempt to punch away Blanco’s cross.

Diego Valeri settled Blanco’s diagonal cross and slotted one past Howard in the 57th minute to make it 3-1.

Yannick Boli cut Colorado’s deficit to one with a penalty kick in the ninth minute of stoppage time but referee Sorin Stoica blew the final whistle before allowing play to resume.

Colorado has lost six in a row, its longest such streak since losing seven straight in 2014.

MLS: Techera’s hat trick; Gordon the hero (again) for Chicago

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) Cristian Techera scored three second-half goals and the Vancouver Whitecaps overcame several defensive errors to tie the New England Revolution 3-3 on Saturday.

Techera completed the hat trick in the 74th minute off a pass from striker Yordy Reyna.

The Whitecaps (4-5-5) are winless in five games and have just one victory in their past nine matches (1-4-4). New England is 5-4-3.

Vancouver trailed 2-0 early in the second half.

Whitecaps defender Aly Ghazal had an own goal and made a poor pass that helped set up a goal by New England’s Teal Bunbury. Another Revolution goal came after defender Sean Franklin mishandled a ball.

Techera made it 2-1 in the 49th minute off a cross from Marcel de Jong. Russell Teibert set up Techera again two minutes later, with Techera scoring on a header after goalkeeper Matt Turner stopped the first shot.

Bunbury gave New England a 3-2 lead in the 59th minute after Ghazal’s weak pass was picked off.

Cristian Penilla also scored for New England.


ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Alan Gordon broke a tie in the 82nd minute and the Chicago Fire beat Orlando City 2-1 on Saturday night.

Gordon settled Bastian Schweinsteiger’s cross with a couple of touches at 25 yards from goal and fired a rocket into the upper right corner past goalkeeper Joe Bendik’s outstretched hand.

Chicago’s Mohammed Adams was sent off in the 89th minute for violent conduct, but the Fire (4-6-2) held on from there, including six minutes of stoppage time, to end a two-game losing streak.

Orlando City (6-5-1) has lost three straight after winning six in a row.

Aleksandar Katai gave Chicago the lead on a free kick in the 13th minute.

Cristian Higuita tied it for Orlando City in the 28th minute, slotting a right-footed shot inside the far post after getting sprung free by Chris Mueller’s short pass to the right side of the penalty area.

Patrick McLain had four saves for his first MLS win.