Colourful life of car dealer turned oil trader who wants to own Hammers

Kia Joorabchian helped to seal the Argentina deal and wants to take over the Hammers but mystery remains over his backers. Nick Harris reports
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If Kia Joorabchian's life story was written as fiction, it would be laughed off as incredible. Yet there seems to be the very real prospect this morning that the Iranian-born, London-based 35-year-old businessman, a university drop-out and one-time car dealer, could soon become the owner of West Ham United, with resources to transform them into major Premiership players.

He has already had a key role in West Ham's signings of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano. Quite where his finance will come from for any takeover is a mystery. He acknowledges he has backers with considerable means, but told The Independent yesterday: "I absolutely, categorically deny the money is Russian."

He has been linked persistently to controversial Russian billionaire oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who now resides in London. The pair are "friends", Joorabchian said yesterday, and have known each other since 1999, more of which later. But Joorabchian maintains that Berezovsky is not, and never has been, his backer.

Rather, he says, he has been extremely fortunate to have built up an extensive network of influential business and social contacts during a nomadic and colourful life. He knows Pele. He knows the "super agent" Pini Zahavi. He got to know powerful people in the oil industry as a trader in his early 20s. He was involved in hedge funds in America when most people still thought that the profitable, high-risk sector had something to do with topiary.

Joorabchian's story begins in Tehran in July 1971, when he was born the eldest child of Mohammed Joorabchian, a wealthy motor trader with a business empire across the Middle East. "In 1979 we went on holiday to England," Kia Joorabchian said yesterday. "While we were there the revolution happened back in Iran. My father lost everything, the lot. We had to start again from scratch in Britain."

Joorabchian Snr set up a car dealership, which he subsequently sold as the family decided to try a new life in Canada. They opened a hot-dog and hamburger restaurant, which was successful, but when Kia was 12, his father moved the family back to England, and started a new car business, which became Medway Autos in Kent. Kia was sent to boarding school at Shiplake College in Henley. His O levels were "so-so" and he completed only the first year of his A levels before moving to a different school in Golders Green, north London. "Not great," he says of results he now cannot remember, but he managed to gain a place at Queen Mary & Westfield College at the University of London, to study business and chemistry. "But I couldn't get my head around the chemistry, and I dropped out after the second year. My dad wanted me to be a doctor, he wasn't too impressed."

Instead he worked for his father, and then became a trader at London's International Petroleum Exchange, "dealing Brent Crude in the pits". He also got involved in the stock market and, after five years building contacts and experience, decided to chance his arm with his own investment company, American Capital, in the US. Though he and an associate, Reza Irani-Kermani, registered their firm in the British Virgin Islands, their sparse HQ was a room on the top floor of a midtown Manhattan office block, where the staff consisted of two secretaries.

AC's first deal saw them buy 85 per cent of one of Russia's most influential newspapers, Kommersant, or rather they thought they had bought it. They even held a press conference to outline their plans.

The paper, like other planned investments in "emerging markets", would be restructured and then sold on for profit. "Except we never completed the deal," Joorabchian said yesterday. "The vendors agreed to sell it to someone else. We sued, and that's how I met Boris Berezovsky, because we ended up doing a deal, out of court, where he got the paper, and we got a settlement. I've known him ever since, but that was the first and last time I have done business with him. People can try to link us all the time, but I'm telling you there is no financial link."

Joorabchian said that AC branched into hedge funds and became a "boutique investment house". Things went well until 9/11, when the markets "became volatile and I wanted out". He says he sold his company for "between £50m and £60m" and returned to England, to be closer to his sick father. Joorabchian then ran several low-key businesses, including a health spa in Camden, north London, and an investment company dealing with Iran that was not very successful.

It was after a chance meeting with Pele's agent that Pele convinced him to put his money into football, and Brazilian football in particular. Pini Zahavi, another contact, agreed. "They said Brazilian football was the place to be."

In August 2004, he set up a company, Media Sports Investment, with a "shell" office in central London. He bought Corinthians in Brazil and, with assistance from anonymous backers, spent £50m on club and players, including Tevez. The rest is recent history. Berezovsky, he said, had no investment in the club, and says reports to the contrary are "untrue".

Berezovsky has lived in Britain since 2003, when he was granted political asylum after falling out with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Russian authorities charged Berezovsky in his absence with complicity to fraud, complicity not to return hard currency from abroad, and money laundering, charges he denies.