Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Chelski' Chief Has England Guessing

APIn an interview with the Sunday Times, Roman Abramovich said he admired Thierry Henry of Arsenal, above.
In less than a week, without ever scoring a goal, one little-known 36-year-old has turned the English football world on its head.

Before he decided to risk a fraction of his vast wealth buying trophy-starved Chelsea, Roman Abramovich was virtually unknown outside his native country. But in Britain, where soccer clubs and daily life are codependent, the Chukotka governor is quickly filling the void left by paparazzi darlings David Beckham and Posh Spice, who recently abdicated Albion for warmer climes in Iberia.

If the rumors reported in the British press are to be believed, the oil and metals magnate is preparing to plunk down a fair bit of his estimated $5.7 billion fortune in the next few weeks snapping up the world's top players.

The "Chelski" buzz seems just what English soccer was looking for, adding spice to an otherwise dismal preseason, during which teams usually spend millions buying and selling players.

The Chelsea deal is still making front-page news in Moscow, too, but for slightly different reasons. Kommersant blew out its front page Tuesday with an article headlined: "Stepashin Scores Against Chelsea."

Sergei Stepashin, the head of parliament's budgetary watchdog, the Audit Chamber, accused Sibneft, the oil company controlled by Abramovich, of dodging some $300 million in taxes in 2001 -- more than the sale price of Chelsea.

"That's where the spare money for Chelsea came from," Kommersant quoted Stepashin as saying in a speech in St. Petersburg.

Whether or not the rumors and accusations are true, the buzz being created by Boris Berezovsky's protege is selling papers on either end of Europe and, at least for now, driving up the share prices of several English soccer clubs, Chelsea included.

In fact, so much gossip is going around that even the Manchester-based broadsheet The Guardian felt the need to run a story about a rumored "second Russian billionaire" who is lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on the pearl of English football, Manchester United.

If each item on the laundry list of English newspaper "scoops" turns out to be true, then Abramovich is striking a deal an hour, spending the tax money that Stepashin was talking about at a dizzying pace.

The Mirror had Abramovich offering Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola a $4.7 million contract to return to the West London club. Just days before Abramovich took over, Zola quit Chelsea to join his hometown Sardinian side Cagliari. The Sun said Abramovich wanted Zola back so much that he offered to buy Cagliari itself for $20 million after the club refused a $2 million offer just to tear Zola's contract up.

Zola may have escaped the clutches of the Russian oligarch, but there is no shortage of other players Chelsea is looking to score with, including Brazilian striker Ronaldinho of Paris St. Germain, Ukrainian superstar Andrei Shevchenko, Alessandro Nesta of AC Milan, Thierry Henry and Sol Campbell of Arsenal, and Leeds' Harry Kewell.

So far, much of the speculation is just that -- speculation, but in an interview with the Sunday Times, Abramovich did say he admired Henry and Campbell of Arsenal, which finished second in the English Premier League last season. The cagey Russian, however, refused to say who else was in his sights because "their price would then go up."

Media reports said last week that Abramovich had earmarked nearly $50 million for a Chelsea shopping spree, but that figure doesn't add up with the unconfirmed reports of a $40 million bid for Nesta and some $48 million for Henry.

Abramovich's spokesman refused to name names or figures and hinted that all the reports were overblown.

Financial analysts who specialize in professional soccer say they doubt Abramovich will do anything too extravagant.

"We're waiting to see his first deal," said Stan Lock, a soccer analyst at private client fund management Brew Dolphin in London. "Is he really going to pump in money? I don't think he's going to do that. He's shrewder than that. He didn't get rich by being stupid."

"I don't believe that he is going to spend and buy the best 11 players in Europe," said Alan Flitcroft, a partner in the media and entertainment group of Ernst & Young. "As a businessman he is more canny than that."

Abramovich only has a few weeks left before the start of the new season, when the transfer window will close until January.

Analysts took a pass on guessing the likelihood of English fans being able to enjoy a red Russian derby -- Chelsea versus Man United -- next season with Abramovich and his rumored mystery billionaire counterpart trading shouts of "sudyu na mylo" (turn the referee into soap).

"It's as if everyone has got the Russian billionaire fever," said Flitcroft. "There can't be that many Russians out there who want to buy an English club. Even if there is another one it doesn't make a trend."

But where it has been a trend is in Russia itself.

The Russian Premier League fixture list now more resembles the RTS index than a copy of Sport-Express, with Yukos vs. LUKoil in one game and Norilsk Nickel vs. Gazprom in another.

Naturally the teams aren't actually called that -- in reality it is Dynamo vs. Spartak and Torpedo vs. Zenit -- but Russian football has been swept away by oligarchic cash much the same way Chelsea was seduced.

And it's not just soccer.

Abramovich also owns the Omsk Avangard hockey club and is said to own part of the CSKA soccer club, while Vladimir Potanin's Interros group owns the CSKA basketball club.

Even the possibility that either Potanin, who controls metals giant Norilsk Nickel, or Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who controls oil giant Yukos, could be headed for English pastures has already had a profound effect on the market, Lock said.

"I'm struggling to find a seller [of shares in English clubs]," he said. "They think the Russians are coming."