Despite UEFA clearing the oligarch of a conflict of interest, Roman Abramovich still has significant influence at Chelsea's Champions League oppenents CSKA Moscow, writes Kevin O'Flynn
The story may sound familiar. A wealthy Russian benefactor invests huge sums in a football club, outstripping league rivals by millions and hiring a Portuguese European Cup-winning coach to take them to Champions League glory. This is not Chelsea, however, but Russian champions CSKA Moscow. The money smells the same; of Russian oil and Roman Abramovich. Despite UEFA clearing the Chelsea owner of a conflict of interest, some are still asking whether the billionaire or his associates are trying to create two super-clubs. The similarities between the two stories received wider attention when CSKA were drawn against Chelsea in the Champions League – no one is allowed to have a majority stake in two clubs in the same competition – but the connections had long been known in Russia.
Last March, CSKA signed a massive three-year sponsorship deal with Sibneft, the oil company that Abramovich built up into a giant. At $54 million (£30m) over three years, the deal outstrips Vodaphone’s sponsorship with Manchester United. By comparison, CSKA’s previous deal had been for a mere $1.5m a year.
CSKA are also in the process of a makeover similar to the Abramovich-backed one at Chelsea. Until three years ago, CSKA were a poor shadow of the club that had won six league titles and four cups during the Soviet era. Then Yevgeny Giner appeared with huge amounts of money to spend, importing high-quality players such as Croatia striker Ivica Olic and Czech midfielder Jiri Jarosik, and providing the funds to bring the club up to modern standards.
The way the club has been run has a certain Chelsea way about it. Even though CSKA won the league in 2003 for the first time in 13 years, coach Valery Gazzayev was still sacked for failing to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League. Portuguese coach Arthur Jorge, who took Porto to the European Cup in 1987, was hired instead for $1m a year. He was sacked earlier this year after a poor start, with Gazzayev reinstated.
As president, Giner runs the team, but who provides the money is another matter. Earlier this year Giner told the financial newspaper Vedomosti that 49 per cent of the club was owned by British company Blue Castle Enterprises, 26 per cent by Russia’s AVO Kapital and 25 per cent by the country’s ministry of defence. Who is behind Blue Castle is a mystery. Newspaper Russky Fokus traced the convoluted origins of the company and still could not find an answer. The closest they came was to make a connection to a lawyer linked to another oligarch, Alexander Mamut, who is also a close friend of Abramovich. Giner himself has been a regular visitor to Stamford Bridge over the past year.
Abramovich was named the most influential figure in Russian football by the magazine Pro Sport this year for buying Chelsea and his role in the development of CSKA. He also once offered to build a new stadium for the club. Where Chelsea and CSKA differ is that the latter are tied into the conspiracies that thrive around money and football in Russia. In September, deputies from St Petersburg appealed to the prime minister to ensure that referees were fair to their home team, Zenit, who are locked in a battle with CSKA and Lokomotiv Moscow in one of the most exciting title races in Russia in years. Corruption and paying off of referees has long been a problem in Russian and Soviet football and a number of refereeing decisions against Zenit and for CSKA have been questioned this year. The deputies claimed the oligarchs who own Russian clubs have separate sections in their budgets for paying off referees.
A joke doing the rounds says a lot about CSKA’s reputation. Gazzayev is talking to Giner and says: “We need Ronaldo.” Giner gets his little black book out, looks through it and says: “No, we haven’t got any referee called that.”
Nobody is talking of a fix between CSKA and Chelsea but it seems unlikely that such a situation where two clubs are so closely tied will be allowed to happen in the future. The latest news is that the saviour of Monaco, Russian businessman Andrei Fyodorychev, is taking a stake in Dynamo Moscow. What’s the betting on a similar UEFA inquiry when those two meet in the Champions League?
From WSC 213 November 2004. What was happening this month