"Roman Abramovich is going to have a busy few months. Even with the arrival of Antonio Conte, hired to replace the 69-year-old caretaker Guus Hiddink, he needs to rebuild Chelsea into a top team again. Where will he begin? How will he go about it? How, exactly, does Roman Abramovich run his club?
Few people know. The $10 billion man tends to avoid speaking much, partly by pretending to know little English. All his bodyguards, pilots, yacht attendants, and various servants, are sworn to silence. People at Chelsea tend to refer to him only as “the owner" or “Mr. A." But over the years, by talking with Chelsea officials and coaches and by scouring the memoirs of football people in his orbit, I have gradually put together a picture of one of the most fascinating club owners in the world.
Before Abramovich decided to buy a club, he had a look around Spain and Italy. Ownership there seemed unduly complicated. In Italy, many of the families who owned clubs had been doing business with each other for generations. In Spain, horror of horrors, the fans themselves owned the biggest clubs. As for the Bundesliga, Abramovich never seems to have considered it.
In April 2002 he flew to Manchester to watch United. After the game, Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins write in their biography Abramovich (2004), Rio Ferdinand drove him to Manchester airport, and the Russian charmed the player by joining in a sing-along with a fellow passenger, Ferdinand’s 4-year-old half-brother. (Charm is one of the secrets of Abramovich’s success.)
Not long after that, the story goes, Abramovich was flying in a helicopter over London when he spotted a stadium handily located near his house in Knightsbridge. “What’s that?" he reportedly asked. It was Chelsea. He bought the club for about £60 million, sealing the deal with the departing owner Ken Bates over a bottle of Evian water in London’s Dorchester Hotel. (Another secret of his success: He rarely drinks.)
Back then, the Russian still talked to journalists. When my newspaper, the Financial Times, rang to ask about his purchase, he revealed that his favorite player was Arsenal striker Thierry Henry and explained why he had bought Chelsea: “I’m looking at it as something to have fun with rather than having to realize a return. I don’t look at this as a financial investment." He has barely spoken another word in public since.
Abramovich was born in Saratov in northern Russia on Oct. 24, 1966. By age 2 he had lost both parents: his mother, Irina, to complications of a botched abortion, and his father, Arkady, in a crane accident. Growing up as a short Jewish orphan in the anti-Semitic Soviet Union shaped the boy: He learned to be acutely sensitive to other people’s desires. All his life he has approached others with a disarming smile. Nobody who has met him seems ever to have considered him outwardly nasty.
The toddler was adopted by his father’s brother, Leib, who lived in Ukhta, a town created by former political prisoners 700 miles northeast of Moscow. Leib ran the supplies department at a state-owned timber business. He was what Russians call a nesun, a “carrier": one who carries off bits of state property from the workplace—in Leib’s case to sell them on the black market.
Never a brilliant pupil, the young Abramovich became a gifted wheeler-dealer. By the late 1980s the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev had opened a space for entrepreneurs. Abramovich sold dolls in an open-air market in Moscow and dealt in everything from tires to bodyguards to cigarettes. But all this was small time. His first big break seems to have been in oil: He bought it at cheap Soviet prices, and procured an export license to sell it at a big profit abroad.
The longtime Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard writes in his autobiography, Totally Frank: “I don’t know the exact details of his background but from what I have read Mr. Abramovich had a very humble start in life and has made his own luck." In fact, “luck" in Russia depends on proximity to power. Abramovich achieved that by charming the oligarch Boris Berezhovsky, who was close to the ruling Yeltsin family. Years later, after the two men had fallen out, Berezhovsky would say that of all the businessmen he had encountered, Abramovich was best at “person-to-person relations."
In 1995 Berezhovsky and the 29-year-old Abramovich bought 51% of the state-owned Sibneft (“Siberian oil") company. They paid less than $200 million for it. Given the wealth under the Siberian earth, this was possibly the biggest act of nesun in Russian history. The two men soon increased their stake in Sibneft by dubious dilutions of other investors’ shares."
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A Rare Insight Into Our Russian Billionaire