Repetition does not kill the romance of the story.
A 36-year-old billionaire happens to watch a thrilling Champions League semifinal game between Real Madrid and Manchester United at the UK’s Old Trafford. Awestruck, he decides that night to buy a football club in England. So determined was he that he did buy a club — not yet among the elites of the league, but one with a proud heritage — in a little more than a weekend into the post-season break. That was Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, when he bought Chelsea Football Club.
Now 55, Abramovich is watching another duel from a very different vantage point, this time at a government building in Istanbul, as teams from Ukraine and Russia negotiate peace in the middle of a war. While Abramovich’s role in the negotiations has not been officially clarified, the speculation in Ukraine and the rest of Europe is that it’s a bid by the billionaire to save his assets scattered across the world. According to The Guardian, he has contacted the financial advisor of Ukraine’s Minister of Finance and promised to invest in the country.
Beyond the speculation, the mere presence of Abramovich in the negotiating room, along with unverified claims only days earlier that he was poisoned, has thrust this largely reclusive figure into the spotlight.
The first time the world took note of the silver-haired businessman was when he bought the club, which, for all his wealth, continues to define his identity. Thus began the Roman Abramovich era in the English Premier League. Thus began the petrodollar milieu in European football, when the finest of footballers on the planet were bought with extravagant, oil-smeared dollars, and automatically won the most glittering of trophies. Since 2003, Chelsea and Manchester City, owned by the prince of Abu Dhabi, have between them collected 10 of the 19 league titles.
There were wizened sceptics, but there were also those who were enamoured by the fanciful, fairytale story of a Russian oligarch sprinkling the magic gold dust of dollars and transforming the club to an overnight elite.
There was something magnetically appealing about his backstory too, a “typically Russian story” which Abramovich himself has described, not in an interview or autobiography but during a court hearing in a cheating case filed against him by oil baron Boris Berezovsky, his mentor-godfather- business partner-turned-rival.
Abramovich was born in the perennially wintry Saratov in the Lower Volga region in October 1966 into a lower middle-class family. When he was barely two, he lost his mother, a music teacher, and his father, a construction site daily-wager. He was brought up by an uncle and aunt in the northern industrial town of Ukhta, about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, before he moved to Moscow to live with his grandmother.
At 18, he was called up for national service, and served his time in Afghanistan with the Red Army. Even at that age, his business acumen caught the attention of his colleagues and officers.
Years later, in an interview with Russian newspaper Zhizn, Nikolai Panteleimonov, who served alongside Abramovich at a rocket force unit stationed in the town of Kirzhach, a small town in Russia’s Vladimir Oblast, recalled, “He could make money out of thin air. A soldier’s monthly allowance was 7 rubles back then. It’s not enough if you have a sweet tooth or a date you want to take to the movies during leave. Roma came up with a scheme: he managed to talk the drivers into siphoning some fuel off their vehicles. The containers full of fuel would be dropped at a location that had been agreed on in advance.”
In another 18 years, Abramovich would go on to own a premier league club in London, and a few more in Moscow and Ukraine.
Two decades on, his identified wealth, according to a Russian wealth tracker, is over USD 8 billion. This includes property worth $300 million in the UK — 70 houses, a 15-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens that he bought for £120 million, two jets (a £39-million Gulfstream and a $10.4-million Bombardier), a pair of Airbus helicopters, and two yachts (a 458-ft Solaris and the 533-ft Eclipse). All this glamour has burnished the aura of Abramovich.
The path to these riches, though, was lined with sweat and grime. After leaving the Army, post the splintering of the Soviet Union, he even set up a toy manufacturing unit, selling plastic ducks from his Moscow apartment.
His steep rise — when he harnessed the economic chaos that followed the political turmoil in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR — began soon after, much of it attributed to his connection with oil baron Berezovsky, then the second richest man of Russia.
There were, of course, theories that he was close to Putin (and before that, Boris Yeltsin), so much so that he did not need an appointment.
Last year, in her book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West, Catherine Belton narrated some of those ‘connections’, saying Abramovich bought the London club on Putin’s orders. Abramovich rubbished it — with his spokesperson saying he was not “Putin’s cashier” — and filed a defamation suit while his lawyers claimed that “Abramovich is someone who is distant from Putin”.
There were also newspaper editors who suspected Abramovich’s Chelsea investment was more a guarantee against risk than a profit-churning venture. “He wasn’t investing in order to make a return, which is the way most people operate commercial assets. He knew there was a risk that Putin would come after him like he has with other oligarchs for his role in this very dubious business practice under Yeltsin. And he knew one of the best ways of protecting himself from being got at by the Russian authorities was to associate himself with a highly visible British asset — and he chose Chelsea Football Club,” wrote The Times’s Matthew Syed.
Whatever his motives, he was a very involved club owner. Before he was barred from living in the UK last month — as part of sanctions imposed on him by the UK government over his perceived ties with Putin, one of seven Russians who faced the rap —Abramovich, who also holds Israeli and Portuguese citizenships, was a familiar figure in the stands for almost every other Chelsea match.
His hair carefully disheveled and stubble untrimmed, usually seen in Neptune-blue sweaters wrapped over navy-blue shirts, wearing a ’90s-style digital watch and half-a-smile, Abramovich would often drop by the training grounds to watch Chelsea practise, usually in his helicopter. He seldom spoke and rarely missed a board meeting, personally sanctioned player purchases and was the final word on recruiting and axing managers. He is said to have been so emotionally invested in some players that he would go to any extent to buy them. He wanted to buy Ukraine’s Dynamo Kiev club because he liked their striker Andriy Shevchenko, whom he duly shipped to Chelsea.
Just as he indulged the performers, he was intolerant towards failures. As many as 13 full-time managers have helmed Chelsea in his time, with many being sacked midway through the seasons — even legendary names (Jose Mourinho, twice) or club totems (Frank Lampard). He was not merely satisfied with England’s Football Association cups or league titles, but wanted Chelsea to win the Champions League. The ruthless ambition of its owner transformed Chelsea from stylish pretenders to tough winners, Europe’s finest, and now the defending champions.
In the process, he changed the nature, ethos, and ethics of the league too. He was not perhaps a footballing visionary or a philosopher, but his 19-year-old reign is an unerasable chapter in the history of modern football, embellished by the romance of the story of that Old Trafford European night.
Now that he finds himself in a roomful of people who are negotiating the contours of a messy war, Abramovich might well have another shot at history.