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Chelsea triumph bitter-sweet in Russia

Last updated on: May 02, 2005 16:36 IST

The success of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich after lavishing a fortune on Chelsea soccer club has earned him many friends in west London but resentment at home.

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The shy oil and metals tycoon, who sports designer stubble and a boyish grin, bought Chelsea in 2003 for $100 million and spent another $400 million on players.

Two years later, the spending spree has paid dividends with the Premier League title, Chelsea's first in 50 years.

"People are proud that a person from this country has created such a good team, a really pleasant team to watch," said Nikolai Roganov, deputy head of the soccer department at Sovietsky Sport newspaper.

"But there are also negative feelings -- why is a Russian businessman putting his money into developing British soccer and not Russian?"

Interest among Russians in Chelsea has soared, with television stations showing as many of the team's games as possible and supporters setting up a Russian Chelsea fan club.

"Before, Russians were interested in Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, but now Chelsea has become very popular," said Roganov.

Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov accused Abramovich of "spitting" on his homeland when he bought Chelsea.

But Abramovich, who like many of Russia's super-rich, made his fortune in the economic anarchy of the post-Soviet privatisations of the 1990s, did redeem himself after his Sibneft oil firm signed a $54 million sponsorship deal with CSKA Moscow soccer club last year.

Abramovich remains popular in London. In winter, fans at Stamford Bridge sport Russian fur hats and before matches loudspeakers blare Russian music.

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Off the pitch, 38-year-old Abramovich makes headlines in Russia with extravagant shopping trips -- newspapers describe every technical capability of his latest yacht or detail how many hectares of land his new mansion has.

Even his highly paid Chelsea players were awed by his wealth after he invited them on to one of his several vessels moored at a heavily guarded quay in Monaco last year.

Abramovich, orphaned before he was five, rarely gives interviews. Such was his invisibility that a newspaper once ran a competition to find a photograph of him.

At Stamford Bridge he is shadowed by security. When he uses the lift no one else is allowed in.

Estimated recently by Forbes magazine to be worth $13.3 billion, making him Russia's richest man and the 21st most wealthy person in the world, Abramovich has influence with some of the most powerful people in Russia.

At a Champions League tie between CSKA and Chelsea last year, his executive box hosted former President Boris Yeltsin, as well as two potential future presidents -- Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

People close to the elusive Abramovich say he is driven by plans and projects and once he has achieved what he has set out to do, he tends to lose interest and look for new challenges.

But Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho says he has been impressed by Abramovich's enthusiasm.

He attends almost every match and talks to players in the the dressing room afterwards, trailed by security. When it rains, a man is there to hold his umbrella for him.

He also visits the training ground in Surrey regularly.

Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon has assured fans the club is a long-term project for the Russian and the club's plan was to break even within five years so they no longer had to rely on his handouts.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Hurst and Clare Lovell in London)

Sonia Oxley
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