Much has changed since Rasim Tagirbekov made his debut for FC Anji Makhachkala a decade ago – a lot, in fact.
Then a second-tier club, Anji are now vying for supremacy at the top of the Russian Premier-Liga – they are second, two points behind PFC CSKA Moskva as the winter break winds down – and preparing to appear in the spring phase of a continental competition for the first time, against Hannover 96 in the UEFA Europa League round of 32.
One constant throughout their ascent, fuelled by the recruitment of stellar names such as Roberto Carlos, Samuel Eto'o and coach Guus Hiddink, has been the presence of defender Tagirbekov. "I've been here for a long time," the 28-year-old, boasting 275 league appearances for the Dagestan side, told UEFA.com.
"The team had their good and bad moments. The club were relegated from the Premier League [in 2002] and every year we had the task of getting back there, but we were failing to do it. In 2009 the president set the task again and we finished in first place. In 2010 we returned to the Premier League."
Did he ever envisage such a heady rise? "Of course not," said the left-sided centre-back. "It's difficult to imagine something like this happening when you're playing in the first division and struggling for survival. But anything can happen. You wait, together with your team, you try to succeed and your dreams come true one day."
With Anji having progressed through a UEFA Europa League Group A involving Liverpool FC, Udinese Calcio and BSC Young Boys, in what is only their second European campaign, thoughts are turning to the knockout phase and the shift in mentality it requires.
"In the group stage you play all the games, but now, if things go wrong, you are out," said Tagirbekov. "I can't say we have jitters – we had them before the first game. Now we are just getting ready and we aren't afraid." Hannover beware.
Watch the video above to see the full interview with Tagirbekov.
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