Sport on TV: Sweeney hot on the murky twists and turns of the Roman road

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The Independent Online

This hasn't been the best of weeks for Roman Abramovich, despite making more money in it than David Beckham does in a year, according to John Sweeney, whose Sweeney Investigates (BBC2, Thursday) asked the question: "Where did the Russian get his wealth?"

This hasn't been the best of weeks for Roman Abramovich, despite making more money in it than David Beckham does in a year, according to John Sweeney, whose Sweeney Investigates (BBC2, Thursday) asked the question: "Where did the Russian get his wealth?"

Last Monday the man whose Chelski revolution has changed the face of football might have been enjoying his caviar at breakfast when he was handed a fax of the Moscow Times's front page. He would not have been amused by a headline that (translated) read: "BBC investigates Abramovich's money".

And if Abramovich, holed up in his luxury £33m London home, set his television to the documentary, he will have squirmed his way through a programme which did him no favours.

Currently, as the excellent (dare one add brave) Sweeney pointed out, the Russian billionaire is about to face a lawsuit in a Swiss court which will accuse his company, Runicom SA, of forging documents and splurging out on yachts and beauty treatment for his wife while refusing to pay back a debt to the European Bank.

But without going into too much detail, for (a) it's rather murky and (b) no Chelsea supporter really cares, Runicom SA once handled the lucrative oil trade for Sibneft. "Siberia is 5,000 miles of not very much," says Sweeney, "except oil, which is two miles beneath me. Sibneft pumps out plenty of it, 700,000 barrels a day."

Ah, oil. Does George Bush know about Siberia? Clue: it's nowhere near Liberia. But for Red Rom there are claims made in Sweeney Investigates that "aged 28, in 1995, Abramovich hitchhiked a ride on Boris Berezovsky's coat-tails". Berezovsky was an oligarch, later accused of funding Chechen rebels. A friend of the former Russian president Boris Yelstin, an enemy of incumbent Vladimir Putin; 'nuff said, and he now lives in London.

We are told that Abramovich first became part of "The Family" and then was "The Family's Wallet" - "The Family" referring to Yeltsin's entourage.

Then, with 700,000 barrels of vodka taking its toll on Yeltsin and another election looming, the Oligarchy again supported Yeltsin and he was re-elected in 1996, taking 52 per cent of the vote. "Now it was payback time," says Sweeney, "and Abramovich was given the chance to bid for an oilfield the size of Wales". He won the auction, "at a fraction of the oilfield's true price".

A Sibneft spokesman, an American, informs Sweeney that "Mr Abramovich is a very good businessman" and that the company is "transparent". Sweeney, in turn, opines that "whatever this is... it's not transparent".

The Oligarchy then spotted Yeltsin's days were numbered and manoeuvred Putin into the political frame in late 1999. "Then in 2000 Abramovich stepped out into the financial premier league on a road to riches paved with aluminium," says Sweeney.

Those riches sparked the "Aluminium War" in which dozens of influential people met a gruesome, untimely end. "There is no suggestion Abramovich had any part in the Aluminium War," Sweeney says, "...but after he took over [Rusal, the major aluminium player] the murders stopped."

Sweeney doesn't track down Abramovich for his version of events, but he speaks to Berezovsky. "Are Putin and Abramovich in bed together?" asks Sweeney. "Of course," replies Berezovsky. There's also the allegation that "Abramovich doesn't care about Russia, he cares about Putin". One wonders if he cares for Chelsea, or is it the money he can make from the club?

Either way, Chelsea supporters are nonplussed. A vox pop after a home match, which might have been the one on 27 October, poses the question to fans: "Where did Abramovich get his money?" The answers are succinct. "It's a little bit dubious," says one; "it comes from Russia, doesn't it," shrugs another; "I really don't know"... "don't ask that one"... "who knows, who cares" - all appear a fair reflection of the feeling. There is one dissenter, though. "He's an arsehole," says the man on his way to Fulham Broadway tube... "but then again I'm a Hammers man." (Chelsea beat West Ham 1-0 on the above date).

Of most concern to Abramovich, though, will be not the jury of fans in SW16, but those in a Switzerland court.

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