Oddball partnership: a Russian oligarch and 'Chelski'

Billionaire Roman Abramovich's acquisition of London's struggling Chelsea soccer club has raised eyebrows - and hopes

It must be the most intriguing liaison in world sports.

He is Russia's most enigmatic oligarch - oil tycoon, political mover and shaker, one of the world's youngest billionaires.

They are London's most glamorous set of soccer stars, giants of European football who nonetheless have struggled for success.

But all that could change, now that Roman Abramovich, bashful billionaire and soccer convert, has bought the Chelsea Football Club in a move that jolted English soccer as it hibernated through a sultry summer recess.

Many Chelsea fans were ecstatic, hoping that the oilman's wealth would bring better days to the consistent underachievers of fashionable west London.

But others were not so sure. Rival fans and neutrals begrudged the blatant bid to "buy" success. Former government minister and Chelsea fan Tony Banks, alarmed at the sudden appearance of a new boss from the Wild Far East, called for an inquiry. Financial authorities launched an inquiry into the deal's complexities. The press, meanwhile, dubbed the club "Chelski," and ruminated loudly on the motives of the new soccer boss they nicknamed "Red Rom."

Chelsea is an odd addition to Abramovich's empire. He made his fortune from more mundane assets such as oil and aluminum, shrewdly acquired during Russia's reckless years of privatization in the mid-1990s.

Soccer, known here as football, hardly sits easily in his stable - and is in any case a terrible business proposition these days, riddled with expensive stars, cash-strapped television paymasters, and money-losing clubs, Chelsea prime among them. Abramovich paid around $100 million for the club and its surrounding property assets, but settling its debts will cost him even more - about $130 million.

The Russian has bankrolled $100 million to buy eight stars. Paying their salaries over the next three to four years will cost him the same amount again. Even if Chelsea wins every title going in England and Europe in the next four years - an unthinkable, unprecedented achievement - its income is unlikely to recoup Abramovich's outlay, says John Moore, an expert in soccer finances.

"It can't be about money," says Mr. Moore, who follows the industry for the City brokerage Brewin Dolphin. "In this day and age, clubs that spend significant amounts on transfer fees won't recoup it.

"I don't think he's looking for a pure financial return."

So what is Mr. Abramovich looking for? His legion of London advisers (Abramovich gives few media interviews) insist he is a longtime soccer devotee who, in the words of one, "has always had an ambition to own a football club."

But analysts in Moscow are skeptical, because Abramovich was never a conspicuous football afficionado in Russia. The suspicion is that Chelsea is a plaything, a prestige item to boost the Abramovich name internationally. And London property and status could become highly expedient if Abramovich runs afoul of the Kremlin, as other oligarchs have done recently. (His mentor, Boris Berezovsky, escaped the Kremlin's clutches by taking self-imposed exile in London.)

"It reminds me of Arab sheikhs who became rich in the mid 1970s," says Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst at Moscow's Heritage Foundation. "They started buying golden baths, luxury yachts, not investing in industries or supporting the national economy.

"It's a prestige thing," Mr. Volk adds. "Being on equal footing with the British aristocracy and having a chance to meet them means a lot to him."

Director suites at top matches bulge with the great and powerful of the political, financial, and sporting worlds. Prime Minister Tony Blair is an avid Newcastle United fan. During the last Conservative government, Chelsea could count several cabinet ministers among its regular attendees. "One beauty of a football club is you meet everybody in life," says Mr. Moore. "That is why you buy a club. Chelsea plays Newcastle twice a year, so you might get Tony Blair in your box and have a couple of drinks afterwards.

"It's like buying membership to a nice posh club in London. It may well be that he loses money, but Chelsea may be the leverage he needs to get from A to B."

Inside the Stamford Bridge ground - London's biggest soccer stadium - there are few signs of the incipient Russian revolution. The club shop does a brisk trade, but still doesn't stock replica shirts with the names of new stars.

Fans are excited by the talent - from Cameroon, Argentina, Ireland, Romania - that Abramovich has already signed up. And the season started well with a 2-1 win against rivals Liverpool Sunday, as Abramovich looked on with obvious delight. But most admit there's a long way to go before "Chelski" can eclipse major European rivals like Real Madrid, Manchester United, or Juventus.

"You don't build a title-winning team in one summer," says Rob Hobson, editor of a Chelsea fan e-zine, CFCnet. "To add eight players at any stage is a big change. But these were very smart buys on the whole, and we are the only people in Europe now with the money to buy players."

Even the coaching staff see a formidable task ahead. "We've got a lot of new faces in, so it will take time to bed down," says assistant coach Gwyn Williams. "It's the same as anything. To run a brand- new Rolls Royce you need a lot of money, a good mechanic, and you've got to look after it."

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