Oligarchs Fail to Wow Israeli Fans

Itar-TassRoman Abramovich
TEL AVIV, Israel -- Russian champion CSKA Moscow beat Spartak Moscow to scoop $1 million in prize money at a tournament in Israel last week, but the real competition seemed to be which billionaire could throw the most lavish party.

The $8 million, six-team tournament, sponsored by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, was originally designed to provide top Russian and Ukrainian clubs with quality competition during their long winter break.

But with parties featuring lots of vodka, caviar and hordes of leggy blondes, the event was as much a social gathering for the rich and famous as it was a football competition.

With last year's tournament, which involved CSKA, Spartak, as well as Ukraine's top duo Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, being largely ignored by the Israeli public, this year, organizers added two home clubs to fuel interest.

But despite extensive media coverage, attendance was still disappointing.

The final was played in a half-empty 16,500-seat Blumfield Stadium, while group matches drew even fewer fans.

Most fans were from the country's large Russian-speaking community but native Israelis showed little interest. Even matches involving the two leading Israeli sides, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv, failed to entice them.

The only exception was the match pitting Spartak against Dynamo Kiev, Russia and Ukraine's most popular clubs, who between them won 25 Soviet league titles. The fixture sought to rekindle memories of their rivalry in the 1970s and 80s.

"The Israeli public by large have not understood the very nature of this tournament," Israeli FA press officer Ofer Ronen-Abels said.

"Russian or Ukrainian teams also lack star players for local fans to identify with. If we had Chelsea playing, this stadium would have been full," Ronen-Abels added.

While having Chelsea compete in this tournament looks unrealistic for now with no midseason break in the Premier League, there is talk of expanding the competition further.

"I think the tournament is here to stay. The quality of football has grown from last year and I think this trend will continue," CSKA president Yevgeny Giner said.

"It would be tough to bring clubs from England, Italy or Spain here at this time of the year simply because they are playing in their domestic leagues, but we can try to invite top teams from South America, from Brazil or Argentina for example."

Some fans paid more attention to VIP guests than football.

With the likes of Abramovich, Shakhtar Donetsk president and Ukraine's wealthiest magnate Rinat Akhmetov, Spartak boss Leonid Fedun and others in attendance, the VIP box at Blumfield resembled a Forbes list of the world's richest men.

While some VIPs came to be seen, at least one showed a genuine interest in the game itself. Abramovich, accompanied by close friends and fellow oligarchs, Giner and diamond magnate Lev Levayev, attended every match aside from the opener.

Still, football was only part of the whole show.

While in football only a few could compete on equal terms with Abramovich's deep pockets, he found a worthy rival in Betar Jerusalem owner and fellow Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaidamak off the field at least.

For over a week, the two oligarchs tried to outdo each other by bringing planeloads of Russian pop stars to Israel, where nearly one-quarter of the 7.3 million population speaks Russian, to entertain their guests.

The lavish parties made native Israelis envious and drew a sarcastic response from the media.

"The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" read the headline in leading daily Maariv.

Gaidamak, whose son Alexandre owns Chelsea's English Premier League rival Portsmouth, will have a good chance to compete on the football pitch as well next year.

With Betar on top of the Israeli league midway though the season, chances are the side will be invited to take part in a third edition.

Abramovich has already indicated he will run the tournament again next year. For many, his word is as good as gold.