#20 - JRL 7250
July 15, 2003
COMMENTARY--ABRAMOVICH'S FOOTBALLING ROMANCE
MOSCOW, 15 July. /RIA Novosti analyst Valery Asriyan/-Following up on his recent purchase of Chelsea FC, Russia's reputedly second richest man Roman Abramovich has got down to business in his hunt for Europe's top players. Blues fans might have been disappointed by his failure to lure Christian Vieri, Edgar Davids and Ronaldinho to Stamford Bridge, as well as having two multi-million pound bids for Irish winger Damien Duff rejected, but the Russian seems to have set his sights on arguably a far bigger prize. Reports have emerged that
Abramovich came to a spoken agreement with Sir Alex Ferguson last Sunday about the sale of Argentinean star Juan Sebastian Veron. The 28-year-old midfielder currently has a 14 million-pound price tag on him, but this is unlikely to create a gaping hole in Abramovich's estimated personal fortune of 4 billion dollars.
Having said that, the super-successful businessman and politician should know how to spend his money wisely. Orphaned as a child in Saratov (the Volga
region), he was raised by two uncles, the second of whom saw him through the Moscow Institute of Oil and Chemical Industry. Maybe only Abramovich himself was certain that he could achieve success in the first years of post-Soviet Russia, when huge sums could be made. It is certainly unclear as to where he got the funds for his first firms, one of which produced cuddly toys, in 1992-5. These enterprises have long been forgotten in Russia, but his stint as the head of the Swiss oil-trading firm Runicom CA's Moscow office provided him with respectability and his standing grew further when he met businessman and politician Boris Berezovsky, then a member of President Boris Yeltsin's close entourage. Berezovsky introduced him to Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana and the two formed a close friendship that set Abramovich's career flying. In 1996, he became a board member at Sibneft, one of Russia's biggest oil companies, and later the de facto owner.
Abramovich's good ties with the Yeltsin family also assisted him in his political career. In 1999, he was elected as a State Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian parliament) deputy for Chukotka and two years later he became the regional governor. This peninsula in Russia's extreme Far East, facing the USA across the Bering Strait, caught his attention, above all, with its natural riches: ferrous metals, coal and fish. To give him his due, he has tried to keep his electoral promises as governor and in March 2001 he put 18 million dollars of his own money into improving living standards there, including into the construction of schools, houses and roads.
Some might say that his bid for Veron and impressive shopping list for a host of other footballing stars are part of an effort to improve the success-starved west of London, as Chelsea have not won the league since the 1950s. Abramovich is said to be a great sports fan, with a particular penchant for football. However, only a brave man would venture to say that his purchase of Chelsea was motivated by purely fan-based interests. Abramovich himself has gone to great pains to stress that he bought the club as a hobby, and not for financial gain. He has said that he wants to have some fun with the London club and that means winning trophies. After Chelsea's fourth-place finish last season, the lure of the Champions' League is such that this may well be true. Russian footballers and coaches have cried in unison, though, that he could have pursued this hobby in his homeland and invested in Russian football, which is badly in need of money.
Of course, it would be hard to verify the "hobby" version as the real reason for the deal. Some have suggested a different, more serious motive, i.e. that Abramovich is unhappy with the recent pressure being put on the oligarchs, especially the leading oil magnates. There has been speculation that, sensing future unpleasantness, he has decided to put his money into English football and then decamp to the British Isles, where he has indicated he would like to see his children go to school and where many Russian businessmen are already
based. His old friend Boris Berezovsky, for one, now lives in London fighting extradition to Russia. However, no legal claims have ever been brought against Abramovich, even though his business dealings have not always been entirely transparent and the origin of his fortune remains unclear. His business reputation could not be called tarnished; at the very least, he has never fallen victim to some of machinations of the sensational Russian press.
The rumours that Abramovich is set to leave Russia are most likely just that and nothing more. This is all the more true, as speculation is mounting that the Chuktoka governor is intending to continue his footballing romance by buying another club, this time TsSKA Moscow. Whether or not he can persuade the likes of Veron to come to the Russian capital is an entirely different matter.