Thursday, April 27, 2006

Football and the Holy Roman Emperor

Arsenal are through to the Champions league final for the first time. But only because Juan Roman Riquelme missed a last minute penalty that would have taken Villarreal Club de Fútbol SAD (SAD indeed!) into extra time at least, with the momentum clearly in their favour.

The periscope's miss sent El Submarino Amarillo out of the competition they, representing a team from a city of 48,000 inhabitants, had apparently no right to get so far. The miss was made more poignant because Riquelme was clearly their best player. But he was so stunned by the miss that he completely failed to react to the rebound. The ball came back so close to him that it was entirely possible that like Xabi Alonso in the Champions league final of last season, he could redeem himself immediately. But no, Riquelme was a stunned mullet and instead we have a likely Arsa / Barca final (Barcelona defend a 1-0 lead over Milan at the Nou Camp in the early hours of the morning, Woolly Days time.)

The one good thing about that outcome is that Chelsea aren't there. And for the second year in a row that's Liverpool's fault. Last year, it was a direct result of Javier Sanz Luis Garcia's shot that may or may not have crossed the line. This year the two European 0-0 draws sent an underdone Chelsea in the direction of Ronaldinho and failure. Just for good measure Luis Garcia was there again to apply the finish to demolish Chelsea's double in the FA Cup semi final.

One wonders what Roman Abramovich makes of it all. Woolly Days would like to ask him but doesn't have the required contacts. It also wonders why those who do have the contacts don't talk to him. Why not? Don't tell me it's because he is not interesting.

How could anyone with the cyrillic name Рома́н Арка́дьевич Абрамо́вич not be interesting? Forbes magazine has him 25th richest person in the world. He was the saviour for Ken Bates who was floundering as the Chelsea chairman. When Abramovich took over, he wiped out Chelsea's debts and gave Bates £17 million to buy him out. He also promised a further £30million each on new players and training facilities.

Chelsea fans were wetting themselves. And sure enough, within two years he won the English premiership under the guidance of the impossibly conceited Jose Mourinho. Now in his third year of tenure a second title is almost assured.

So what is Abramovich's background? And why does he get away with nil media scrutiny? Can't be simply because the News of the World doesn't speak Russian? Niet? Spasibo.

Roman Abramovich is a Russian oil billionaire. He is worth at least $10 billion (some say $18 billion but lets not quibble over the odd eight billion dollars or so.) He'll be 40 years old on the 24th of October this year. He is Jewish and funds many Israeli enterprises. Despite his high profile around the world, Abramovich makes virtually no public statements about his activities.

Abramovich got his start in the Gorbachev era opening up a "co-operative" (late 80s Russian speak for a private enterprise). By 1995 Abramovich had founded five intermediary companies trading in oil products.

But even before then, he was in trouble. In July, 1992, the Moscow deputy prosecutor approved the questioning of Abramovich under article 90 of the Russian criminal code. He was accused of stealing diesel fuel worth 4 million rubles from an Ukhta (a city in north west Russia) enterprise. The investigation determined that this fuel was transported to Riga using forged documents but no-one could pin the blame on Abramovich.

Boris Yeltsin's privatised state companies in the mid-90's. With the help of his then-partner Boris Berezovsky, Abramovich became the majority shareholder in the oil company Sibneft and acquired various metals merging with Oleg Deripaska to form Russian Aluminium, the world's second-largest aluminium producer.

Abramovich and Berezovsky acquired half their shares in Sibneft through the "loans for shares" program, in which the state mortgaged and later sold shares in several major enterprises to obtain loans for the government. The other half of the company was privatized through a series of auctions in the mid-1990s.

In 1999 Abramovich, the youngest and the most secretive of Russia’s oligarch clan was elected to the Russian Duma for the impoverished Siberian region of Chukotka. His charity Pole of Hope enabled him to be elected governor of Chukotka in December 2000. Abramovich said that he would not run again in 2005, as it is "too expensive". Luckily for him, Putin changed the law to abolish elections for regional governors, and in October 2005 Abramovich was reappointed governor for another term despite rarely visiting the region.

In June 2003 he took over Chelsea. He has poured approximately half a billion dollars into the club since. His company Sibneft also took a controlling share in CSKA Moscow one year later. He is a family friend of the Yeltsins and Boris is alleged to have provided Abramovich with protection from any attempt of prosecution for criminal activities. In September 2005 he sold over 70% of Sibneft to the Russian government, thus keeping on the right side of Yeltsin's successor Putin so that he will never end up like his fellow oligarch Mikhail Khodorkhovsky who is languishing in a Russian prison. British citizenship might help here too.

In 2000, he gained a law degree from Moscow State Law Academy in less than a year. Abramovich is the protege of Boris Berezovsky, a maths professor turned car dealership tycoon, who helped him secure a hold over Sibneft in 1995. But then Putin turned the heat on Berezovsky and he fled to Britain in 2000.

Abramovich has earned the title "Stealth Oligarch". His state of Chutotka remains off limits to visitors unless in possession of a permit from the governor. Abramovich's assets are managed offshore through his investment fund Millhouse Capital, located in Britain, which Abramovich seems to be calling home.

He remains an enigmatic figure. According to Jonathan Clare, deputy chairman of Citigate Dewe Rogerson, public relations advisers for Mr Abramovich,"Roman gives few interviews, he is a quiet, self-deprecating man but he loves the game."

"He watches games and watches Chelsea as well as watching football all over the world."

Fair enough, maybe. But who is watching Roman Abramovich?

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