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Russia/U.K.: Chelsea Fans Hope Club's New Owner Is 'Honest' Billionaire

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Earlier this week, secretive Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought one of England's best-known soccer clubs, Chelsea, which was loaded down with huge debts. The purchase seems a lifeline for Chelsea but a British member of Parliament has called for an investigation into who exactly Abramovich is and how he made his fortune.

Prague, 3 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Billionaire Roman Abramovich, reported to be Russia's second-wealthiest man with a fortune estimated at $5.7 billion, surprised English soccer fans this week by buying one of their country's most famous teams, Chelsea.

Abramovich, whose wealth was amassed from oil and aluminum interests and who also serves as governor of Russia's Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, paid $233 million for Chelsea. The deal eliminates the club's $130 million debt and gives it a generous cash surplus to spend on new players.

Chelsea is almost always in the top ranks of English soccer, but has only once come first in the country's league. The deal leaves the team's former owner, Ken Bates, as club chairman.

Chelsea has qualified for next season's European Champions League and Abramovich, who made a brief visit to the club yesterday, said in a written statement, "We have the resources and ambition to achieve even more, given the huge potential of this club."

Few people in Britain have ever heard of Abramovich, but are concerned by Russia's reputation for dubious business practices. Some are calling for an investigation into the dealings of the 36-year-old billionaire. These include parliamentarian Tony Banks, a former British sports minister and a self-described long-time Chelsea supporter.

Banks said he has asked the current sports minister and England's Football Association to inquire into Abramovich's suitability for owning the Chelsea club.

"[Chelsea is] an important part of my life, and suddenly Mr. Abramovich -- who I must confess I had very little, if any, knowledge of whatsoever -- suddenly takes over as the new owner of the football club I've supported for 50 years. I've got to ask the immediate and obvious questions: Who is Mr. Abramovich? How did he become so rich in Russia? Is he a man who is fit and proper to be running a major football club? What are his intentions?" Banks said.

Abramovich's spokesman John Mann, speaking from Moscow, said he believes Banks will be reassured once he learns more about the new Chelsea owner.

"He doesn't yet have full information about Mr. Abramovich, and once he finds out the amazing things this guy has done with his life and what he's all about, he and the fans will welcome the new ownership," Mann said.

Abramovich's career does indeed seem amazing. He is one of the major shareholders in Russia's Sibneft oil company, which this year merged with Yukos Oil to create the largest oil producer in Russia and the fourth-largest in the world. He is also a joint owner of Russia's powerful Rusal aluminum company, also one of the world's largest.

But big business in Russia is famously corrupt, and both Sibneft and Rusal have come under frequent examination for their questionable dealings. And if Abramovich is to be judged by the company he keeps, his critics may find even more reason for concern. One of his closest colleagues is Boris Berezovsky, a one-time "oligarch" who now lives in self-imposed exile in London to avoid corruption charges in Moscow. Another Abramovich ally is Rusal's Oleg Deripaska, who is being investigated for racketeering by the United States.

Berezovsky acted as Abramovich's patron and introduced him to the top echelons of the administration of former President Boris Yeltsin. Berezovsky has since fallen out of favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Abramovich reportedly has good contacts with the current president and has built a strong political power base for himself. In 1999, he was elected to the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma. In 2001, he became Chukotka governor.

MP Banks says football clubs in England are about more than business. He says he has requested the investigation into Abramovich's dealings because people have a right to know more about him and what he intends to do with Chelsea.

"That isn't because I'm actually a suspicious or cynical person, even though I am a politician. It's just that I think football is so socially and culturally significant -- far beyond its business significance -- in this country," Banks said. "I think it's right that anyone who seeks to take over the ownership of a football club -- which means in effect influencing the lives of large numbers of people -- I think that person needs to satisfy the football, political, and financial authorities that he or she is a fit and proper person to do so."

Banks says he is not accusing Abramovich of wrongdoing -- simply that more information about the man is needed. "One has to adopt the normal British standard here that you're innocent until proven guilty. And quite frankly I'm hoping that he's an honest young Russian billionaire," he says.

Abramovich's spokesman Mann says the wealthy Russian, who also owns an ice hockey team in the Russian city of Omsk, had looked at other English football clubs as potential purchases. But, Mann says Abramovich began serious negotiations with Chelsea because "he thought the club had potential but needed more resources, which he could provide."

After Abramovich's purchase was announced, Chelsea's value on the stock market rose by 40 percent.

But while many English football officials are avid publicity-seekers, the famously private Abramovich is known for avoiding the limelight. Mann thinks that is unlikely to change.

"I don't see Roman [Abramovich] becoming a media figure, I think. He's appointed three people to the [Chelsea] board -- two from Millhouse [his London-based asset-management company] and one from Sibneft. Actually, one is both Millhouse and Sibneft. And [former Chelsea owner] Ken Bates is sticking around as chairman of the football club," Mann said.

Banks believes it will not be easy for Abramovich to maintain his privacy in Britain. "If Mr. Abramovich is actually seeking to keep a low profile, I think he might have extreme difficulties in doing so. This isn't Moscow, this is London. You can't just disappear in London in quite the way that you disappear in Moscow -- as I've heard, sometimes never to reappear."

But Abramovich's spokesman says the Russian billionaire does intend to show his face -- at Chelsea football matches. "Oh yeah. He'll definitely go to the games. He's got a jet. He can go whenever he wants," he says.

Banks says he is eager to meet Abramovich at one of the games.