Who is Roman Abramovich?
Repetition does not kill the romanticism of the story.
A 36-year-old billionaire watches a thrilling Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Manchester United at Old Trafford, UK. Stunned, he decides that evening to buy a football club in England. He was so determined that he bought a club – not yet among the league’s elite, but one with a proud heritage – in just over a weekend after the post-season break. It was Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, when he bought Chelsea football club.
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Now 55, Abramovich is witnessing another duel from a very different perspective, this time in a government building in Istanbul, as teams from Ukraine and Russia negotiate peace amid a war. While Abramovich’s role in the negotiations has not been officially clarified, speculation in Ukraine and the rest of Europe is that this is an attempt by the billionaire to salvage his assets scattered across the world. According to The Guardian, he contacted the financial adviser to the Ukrainian finance minister and promised to invest in the country.
Speculation beyond, Abramovich’s mere presence in the negotiating room, along with unverified claims days earlier that he was poisoned, propelled this largely reclusive figure into the spotlight.
The world first noticed the silver-haired businessman was when he bought the club, which despite all its wealth continues to define its identity. Thus began the Roman Abramovich era in the English Premier League. Thus began the petrodollar milieu in European football, when the best footballers on the planet were bought off with extravagant, oil-smeared dollars and automatically won the most glittering trophies. Since 2003, Chelsea and Manchester City, owned by the Prince of Abu Dhabi, have won 10 of 19 league titles between them.
There were shriveled skeptics, but there were also those who were seduced by the fanciful, fairy-tale story of a Russian oligarch sprinkling magic gold dust from the dollars and turning the club into an elite overnight.
There was also something magnetically appealing about its backstory, a “typically Russian story” which Abramovich himself described, not in an interview or autobiography, but during a 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 always wintery Saratov in the Lower Volga region in October 1966 to a lower-middle-class family. When he was barely two years old, he lost his mother, a music teacher, and his father, a daily bettor on a building site. He was raised by an uncle and aunt in the northern industrial town of Ukhta, about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, before moving 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 this age, his business acumen attracts the attention of his colleagues and officers.
Years later, in an interview with Russian newspaper Zhizn, Nikolai Panteleimonov, who served alongside Abramovich in a rocket unit stationed in the town of Kirzhach, a small town in Russia’s Vladimir Oblast, recalled “He could make money out of nothing. 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 while you’re off. Roma came up with a scheme: he managed to convince the drivers to siphon fuel from their vehicles. Containers full of fuel would be dropped off at a prearranged location.
In 18 years, Abramovich would continue to own a Premier League club in London, and a few more in Moscow and Ukraine.
Two decades later, his identified wealth, according to a Russian wealth tracker, exceeds $8 billion. This includes property worth $300million in the UK – 70 houses, a 15-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens which he bought for £120million, two jets (a Gulfstream £39m and a $10.4m Bombardier), a pair of Airbus helicopters and two yachts (a 458ft Solaris and a 533ft Eclipse). All that glamor has boosted Abramovich’s aura.
The path to these riches, however, was lined with sweat and grime. After leaving the army, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, he even started a toy manufacturing unit, selling rubber ducks from his apartment in Moscow.
His strong rise – when he exploited the economic chaos that followed the political turmoil following the collapse of the USSR – began soon after, largely attributed to his relationship with oil baron Berezovsky , then the second richest man in Russia.
There were, of course, theories that he was close to Putin (and before that, Boris Yeltsin), so close that he didn’t need a date.
Last year, in her book Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West, Catherine Belton recounted some of these “connections”, saying Abramovich bought the London club on Putin’s orders. Abramovich denied it – his spokesman saying he was not “Putin’s cashier” – and sued for defamation while his lawyers claimed that “Abramovich is someone who is distant from Putin “.
There were also editors who suspected that Abramovich’s investment in Chelsea was more of a hedge against risk than a lucrative venture. “He wasn’t investing with the intention of making a return, which is how most people operate commercial assets. He knew there was a risk that Putin would sue him as he has with other oligarchs for his role in this highly questionable business practice under Yeltsin. And he knew that one of the best ways to protect himself from the Russian authorities was to associate himself with a highly visible British asset – and he chose Chelsea football club,” wrote Matthew Syed of The Times.
Whatever his motivations, he was a very involved club owner. Before he was banned from living in the UK last month – under sanctions imposed on him by the British government over his alleged links to Putin, one of the seven Russians who made face rap – Abramovich, who also holds Israeli and Portuguese nationalities, was a familiar figure in the stands for almost every other Chelsea game.
His neatly tousled hair and uncut stubble, usually seen in Neptune blue sweaters rolled up over navy shirts, wearing a 90s-style digital watch and a half-smile, Abramovich often dropped by the training grounds to watch Chelsea practice, usually in his helicopter. He rarely spoke and rarely missed a board meeting, personally sanctioned player purchases, and was the final say on the hiring and removal of managers. It is said that he was so emotionally invested in certain players that he would go so far as to buy them. He wanted to buy Ukrainian club Dynamo Kyiv because he liked their striker Andriy Shevchenko, whom he had duly sent to Chelsea.
Just as he spoiled performers, he was intolerant of failures. No less than 13 full-time managers led Chelsea in his time, and many were sacked mid-season – even legendary names (Jose Mourinho, twice) or club totems (Frank Lampard). He was not just happy with cups or English Football Association league titles, but wanted Chelsea to win the Champions League. Its owner’s ruthless ambition has transformed Chelsea from elegant contenders into tough winners, the best in Europe and now defending champions.
In the process, he also changed the nature, philosophy and ethics of the league. He may not have been a footballing visionary or philosopher, but his 19-year reign is an indelible chapter in modern footballing history, embellished by the romance of that European night’s story from Old Trafford .
Now that he finds himself in a room full of people negotiating the contours of a messy war, Abramovich might just have another shot at history.