Roman Abramovich and Avram Grant go back a long way, says Shaul Adar
José Mourinho would not have expected the Israel v Ireland World Cup qualifier of March 2005 to have a significant impact on his future. But that was the weekend when Israel’s coach, Avram Grant, was first offered a job by his FA’s guest of honour, Roman Abramovich. Israel had just achieved respectable 1-1 home draws with France and Ireland and an impressed Abramovich told Grant that he would buy whichever Israeli club the coach wanted to take charge of. Grant just smiled, apparently not believing that the Russian was making a serious offer.
UEFA regulations prevent Abramovich from owning more than one club so he asked his Israeli business partner, Lev Leviev, to buy Hapoel Tel Aviv and install Grant. It would have been an odd combination – Leviev is a reclusive Orthodox businessman who dislikes media intrusion, while Hapoel are the most secular football club in Israel, whose hardcore fans have a taste for baiting their religious countrymen. The deal fell through, to the dual relief of Leviev and Hapoel fans, although Abramovich was said to have been annoyed with his partner.
Grant had some meetings with another Russian billionaire, Arkady Gaydamak of Beitar Jerusalem, but eventually found himself working for his son, Alexandre, the owner of Portsmouth. To this day, nobody knows what Grant actually did as director of football at Fratton Park, but it gave him a year to get acquainted with the English game. Sometimes he turned up in unexpected places – when Chelsea hosted Liverpool in the autumn of 2006, the TV cameras zoomed in on Tiger Woods, but Grant was sitting nearby.
As an alternative to owning an Israeli club, Abramovich began to finance an annual Israeli‑Russian-Ukrainian football tournament. Top teams from the three leagues have played in Israel over the last two winters, but in almost empty stadiums despite the country’s large Russian émigré population. Grant, still an employee of Portsmouth at this point, was spotted amongst Abramovich’s inner circle at the oligarch’s parties held in Tel Aviv alongside the matches.
The super-agent Pini Zahavi is another link between the two men. Zahavi built his agency business during the 1990s thanks largely to connections in the crumbling remains of the Soviet Union; later he was the matchmaker who brought Abramovich to debt-riddled Chelsea. Before Mourinho’s departure, it was claimed that Chelsea had signed a Zahavi client, former Bolton defender Tal Ben Haim, against the manager’s wishes. (The only other Israeli at Chelsea is 18‑year-old striker Ben Sahar, currently on loan to QPR, but he seems to have met with Mourinho’s approval.)
In Israel, Grant’s appointment has had mixed reactions. Some saw it as a boost to Israeli prestige, while others wondered if it might cause some unpleasant stirrings around Stamford Bridge. Some Chelsea fans demonstrating against Mourinho’s departure duly chose the old anti-Spurs songs as a way to vent their rage while David Mellor, the former Tory heritage minister, welcomed Grant with an acidic article in the Evening Standard and a string of TV appearances. “Grant is at Chelsea for one reason and one reason only, he is an Israeli-Russian in a club owned by an Israeli-obsessed Russian,” Mellor wrote, making an heroic effort not to use the ‘J’ word. Grant, to be clear, is an Israeli of Polish background and doesn’t speak Russian.
From WSC 249 November 2007