The Roman conquest

Roman Abramovich's takeover of Chelsea has sent shock waves through football not just in England but across the world. Dan Brennan discusses some of the wilder rumours doing the rounds in Moscow and wonders whether we will have to become accustomed to Russian oligarchs following in Roman's footsteps

Roman Abramovich is undeniably good news for tabloid hacks and T-shirt sellers, but will he be good news for Chelsea Football Club? On the face of it, of course, the injection of his thus far limitless millions, which during the last month have allowed the press to link the Blues to just about every A-list star from six continents, are a supporter’s and a manager’s dream (even if Claudio Ranieri would prefer it if he was asked first). And, if Ken Bates is to be believed, Abramovich’s roubles have saved the club from near extinction. So, for the moment at least, all around him are bowing down to the Roman emperor.

The man who started off on the entrepreneurial trail selling plastic toys in the late 1980s now has a much shinier and more expensive plaything to occupy his cash and time. He himself has admitted that he sees the ownership of a football club as a hobby. If he is not allowed to win, though, how long will it be before he decides to take his ball away?

It would be naive, of course, to assume that he is only here for the sport. While ownership of a football club has clearly been a pet project for some time – Abramovich was previously linked to two Moscow clubs, Torpedo and CSKA – the decision to buy into a big(gish) English club carries various other fringe benefits that a local outfit would have denied him.

There are growing fears in Russian oligarch circles that, under Vladimir Putin, the Russian economy is set for a downturn, or at least that they will not be allowed to operate in the laissez-faire free-market am­bience of the 1990s that enabled them to become so rich in the first place. For Abramovich, buying into Chelsea could well be seen as a first tentative step towards moving his capital out of Russia. While the amounts involved in the Chelsea buyout-makeover represent small change for a man worth a reputed US$5.7 billion (£3.7bn), it could be an ideal preamble for the shifting of further business interests beyond the old Iron Curtain. As Rupert Murdoch recognised when he attempted to buy Manchester United, raising his pro­file in the European sporting arena will surely oil the wheels for other business deals, be they alum­inium, petroleum or media.

For Roman, Chelsea FC undeniably represents a wonderful PR opportunity. And there is every sign that the trail to England being blazed by Roman will soon be taken up by some of his wealthy pals. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, perhaps the only Russian business magnate with more power and money than Abram­ovich, is thought to be the shadowy figure who has been sniffing around Man­chester United. A lesser oligarch, German Tkachenko, who is owner of Russian premier league club Krylya Sovietov of Samara, already seems to have established extremely friendly relationships at Old Trafford. He was a VIP guest for at least one Cham­pions League game last season and in May invited Rio Ferdinand and his agents – one of whom is the ubiquitous Pini Zahavi – on a trip to Moscow.

It is unlikely Rio was being primed for a move to Samara (although he did tell journalists, albeit with a big toothy grin, that he wouldn’t mind playing in Rus­sia one day). Much more likely is that he was being used as part of a PR puff to put out feelers among Rus­sian financiers. Interestingly, when they went to take in a match in Moscow, sharing their VIP box was Abram­ovich. Tkachenko has since been spotted visiting Abramovich in Knightsbridge. While this is all, thus far, in the realms of the semi-speculative, it is enough to suggest that Abramovich will not be the last Russian to take a bite of the Premiership pie.

Abramovich’s decision to opt for Chelsea over a nice local club has seen him branded as unpatriotic by sections of the Russian football fraternity. Responding to news of the takeover, Yuri Belous, the general director of Torpedo Metallurg Moscow, told me last month: “Of course it’s a great PR stunt and no doubt it will make good sense financially. But it’s hardly very good for Russian football. Abramovich seems to have forgotten where he made his money and who he has to thank.”

More generally, though, the Abramovich deal has caused a minor sensation in Russia and his audacity has galvanised a sense of national pride. Abramovich is, as they say in Russian, a real muzhik – a fine fellow, one of the boys. Insofar as you can ever generalise, the Russians as a nation carry with them an odd mix of old empire arrogance and chippy inferiority complex – much, in a way, like the British. The demise of the Soviet empire has intensified that feeling in many quarters and there’s a general sense that it’s good to see one of their boys showing the West what a Russian can really do when he puts his mind and money to it.

If you think that sections of the British press have been having a feeding frenzy, then the flights of fancy being embarked upon by some of their Russian coun­ter­parts make them look veritably restrained. Days after the takeover,, one of Russia’s biggest and most reputable news sites, had David Beck­ham, Abramovich and Yevgeny Giner (owner of CSKA Mos­cow) on Abramovich’s private jet flying out of Mad­rid to Moscow. Every Russian player who can kick a ball is being mooted as the next new squad member at Stam-ford Bridge.

Chelsea fans will be heartened by the knowledge that the Abramovich circus seems to be putting down roots. Roman has just purchased – for £12 million – Kerry Packer’s Sussex mansion. Packer bought it off King Hussein of Jordan. The Russian is now busy stripping out any signs of Aussie kitsch and converting it to appeal to his more refined Slavonic tastes. That said, he is constructing on the premises a luxury leisure complex that will incorporate a bowling alley, two Olym­pic-sized pools (in­doors and outdoors) and a games room, no doubt in­cluding a roulette wheel for Eidur Gudjohnson. Presumably he will be inviting the entire Chelsea squad down for bonding weekends.

How long Abramovich’s bond with Chelsea lasts remains to be seen. For the moment, of course, the honeymoon is still in full swing and the media will continue to exalt Chelsea’s Russian saviour until the first signs that his multi-million-pound spending spree is not reflected in tangible success on the pitch. Despite quiet words of caution being muttered in Ranieri’s corner, Roman himself seems to think that the domestic title and the Champions League are at­tainable in his maiden year.

As he goes on acquiring, or at least attempting to acquire, the world’s finest and most expensive foot­balling gems, it is not unlike watching Orson Welles in Citizen Kane pur­suing his unattainable dream, fil­ling a palatial home with exotica from all around the globe, as a proxy for happiness. Unlike hap­piness, the Premiership title can be bought – Blackburn Rovers pro­ved that with Jack Walker’s millions in 1995. But it isn’t easy. It seems more likely that Roman’s West Lon­don Xanadu will end up be­ing nothing more than a very ex­pensive white elephant.

From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month