Wholly Roman Empire

In less than two years, he has transformed English football, yet very little is known about Roman Abramovich's day-to-day involvement with Chelsea. Does he talk to the players? How often does he go to the ground? Would he know the tea lady? Jason Burt went in search of the most powerful man in football and came up with some surprising answers.
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It's a match-day afternoon and a slight, unremarkable figure slips out of his house and sets off to support his local football team. Dressed in blue Armani jeans and Burberry shirt, he looks like many other fans as he enjoys the mile or so walk to Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club. Except it is his club, and the man walking down the Fulham Road is Roman Abramovich.

It's a match-day afternoon and a slight, unremarkable figure slips out of his house and sets off to support his local football team. Dressed in blue Armani jeans and Burberry shirt, he looks like many other fans as he enjoys the mile or so walk to Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club. Except it is his club, and the man walking down the Fulham Road is Roman Abramovich.

He does not often do the journey by foot. Usually it is behind the tinted glass of a black, bullet-proof Mercedes. But it is a sign of how much he enjoys being the Tsar of SW6 that the man worth £7.5bn is comfortable enough to, occasionally, stroll from his four-bedroom, four-bathroom maisonette in Lowndes Square, Knightsbridge, tucked to the back of Harvey Nichols.

Remarkably, neither he nor his bodyguards are generally noticed when he walks even - as has been known - when they nip into the local supermarket on the way. Abramovich is, contrary to reports, not paranoid about security, though he is all too aware of the need to be careful. Earlier this week the son of the CSKA Moscow president Yevgeny Giner, a close friend, was shot in the chest after gunmen opened fire on his jeep. It was the latest attack on high-profile sports owners in Russia.

When Abramovich is noticed, it is usually by small boys, who often shout out asking to be signed up. Or for him to buy their favourite player. Abramovich had the similar sort of thing when he dropped in at Arsenal's training ground last year, as he was drawing up his plans for the futuristic facilities at Cobham, Surrey.

Wisely, the Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger insisted the visit took place when the first-team was not training. But the Under-16s were there and they sat, open-mouthed, as Abramovich inspected the state-of-the-art changing and treatment rooms and hydraulic swimming pool. They too urged Abramovich to "sign them up". It made him laugh.

Even European Players of the Year are not immune. Almost every week, sources insist, Andrei Shevchenko picks up his mobile phone and dials the billionaire's number. The two men talk "all the time", with the Milan striker making it clear, it is said, that he would fancy a move to Chelsea himself after all.

The problem is that Silvio Berlusconi, the Milan owner, and Shevchenko's boss, will not sell. For now. Abramovich will wait. This summer he may strike - some insist the deal is already done. But if he does not get Shevchenko he will simply smile that smile and move on.

It is Roman's way.

It is what happened with Thierry Henry - the bid failed - and Ronaldinho who came extremely close to signing. Steven Gerrard? Ashley Cole? Rio Ferdinand? We will see. "If not them," one source says, "then someone else."

Nothing fazes Abramovich (pronounced "a-bram-o-vitch"). He is not just a football fan like no other, he is the owner of a football club like no other. Very rich men have acquired big clubs before, and run them as their own personal fiefdoms. But Abramovich is richer than anyone who has preceded him, and just as extraordinary are the mystery and detachment associated with the way he runs Chelsea. Nearly two years after rescuing the club, very little is known about his day-to-day involvement.

This is the man who liked the game Fantasy Football - where players' on-field activities affect fictional teams - so much that he decided to do it for real. This is the man who simply tired of watching football, with his feet on his desk, on the plasma screen in the top-floor office of his company, Sibneft, along the banks of the River Moscow, and decided, one day, to go out and buy a team instead. This is the man who bought Chelsea for £60m, paying off debts of £80m, in a matter of minutes while sitting quietly, sipping water, in the corner table of the Dorchester Hotel, as Chelsea's then chairman Ken Bates was mobbed by a party from a Scottish theme night. "Whatever," said Roman, who, at that time, found Bates a blustering amusement. And "whatever" has been his mantra.

He is perhaps the first truly inter-continental football man: owning a big club in Europe, but as likely to following their fortunes on a daily basis from Asia or the Caribbean. As he sits on one of his yachts, somewhere around the world, and a child runs down the beach, catching his eye, wearing a Chelsea shirt with the name "Duff" on the back, Abramovich will smile again. Partly because the Irishman is his favourite Chelsea player.

Because of his wealth, his power, some believe the line that Abramovich wants to make Chelsea a global brand, and in a sense he does. But it does not matter that much. Chelsea, despite the claims of the chief executive Peter Kenyon, is not a business venture for Abramovich. It is the ultimate vanity purchase, a toy, that follows on from the planes, cars (Abramovich loves cars), boats, jet-skis and so on.

"If someone gave you £1m you would probably spend some of the money on the car of your dreams," one source said. "What he has done is just an extension of that." So Chelsea make a loss of £87m? Abramovich, it is said, is willing to shoulder up to £100m a year on the club, for now. He spends a further £50m on his governorship of Chukotka - which runs out this year and will probably see Abramovich replaced by one of his "guys" - £10m on the hockey club Avangard Omsk, £30m on running his homes and £100m, or whatever, on other domestic costs.

But he has £2bn in cash alone in the bank and makes £250,000 in interest. a day. Plus the price of oil keeps going up and, in the next couple of years, he may sell Sibneft realising billions more. "His businesses just keep growing," one associate said.

Chelsea is growing too, but there is huge scepticism of Kenyon's claims that the club will break even in 2010. Abramovich is unconcerned. He has certainly wasted millions on Juan Sebastian Veron - one player who provoked his anger - Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu. But what value now on John Terry, Frank Lampard, Arjen Robben, Petr Cech and, of course, Duff? Abramaovich does not like paying extortionate agent fees - but he also knows Pini Zahavi "gets things done".

It is true that Abramovich sacked Kenyon's predecessor Trevor Birch (with a £2.9m pay-off) partly because he said it would take 40 years to turn Chelsea into that brand. But it was also because Kenyon has, to put it bluntly, a hide like a rhino and is able to deflect much of the attention away from Abramovich. Even the Sky TV cameras do not search out that familiar, unshaven face so much any more. Kenyon who, so far in his business dealings, has done the obvious - such as secure an improved kit deal - is, also, discreet about his boss. "Peter is not some genius," one source said, "but he doesn't say too much either." The attention is something Abramovich didn't expect. The Russian genuinely believed that when he bought Chelsea in the summer of 2003 the media interest would blow over in a matter of weeks. He did not even fly over his most trusted media adviser, John Mann, from Moscow.

One reason why Abramovich was so keen on Chelsea was location. It meant that he, and his guests, could get into the ground easily, using the nearby Battersea Heliport. He did, indeed, think of buying Tottenham Hotspur - but one trip along the High Road left him muttering colourful expletives while Birch, to his credit, was quick to seize the opportunity to do a deal for Chelsea, literally realising Abramovich's worth. Sometimes Abramovich has 200 guests to a match - there will certainly be that number for the return, Champions' League tie against Barcelona next month.

Indeed, Stamford Bridge has become known as the "Hamptons of Moscow" and experts in Russian politics would have field day people-spotting if they caught sight of the boxes around Abramovich. There's a European Prime Minister here, a banker there, a billionaire next to him and so on. For the tie in the group stages of the competition, against CSKA, "all the oligarchs were there".

However, those close to Abramovich at Chelsea insist that he did not buy the club as an expensive "calling card". Yes, Abramovich undoubtedly wants to assimilate more into western society - he has spoken of educating his five children in England - but he does not need football to effect the change from used car tyre salesman - which he was - to international plutocrat. He has already done it. "Believe me," one source said, "more people want to see him than he wants to see. If anyone wants to speak to him they have to go through the network."

"The network" is a remarkable thing especially as it is vast, including business associates, friends and relatives. Despite the millions of words written about Roman Arkadievich Abramovich little is really known. No one leaks. Few speak to the press and rarely on-the-record. It helps that Abramovich usually also employs people who are worth millions themselves - such as Eugene Tenenbaum and Eugene Shvidler.

Abramovich has known the two men for years and, even those who have known him for a long time admit that he is "hard to get close to". Indeed, there is another, intriguing side to Abramovich which has become clearer in the past season and shows, perhaps, just how clever he really is. He likes to mingle with the players. He likes to sit in the canteen at Cobham and eat his lunch, just watching everything around him. He likes to ride on the team bus, as he did triumphantly when they arrived in Moscow to play CSKA, the team he sponsors, and many Russians claim he actually also owns - although his spokesman denies that he does.

After each Chelsea home game Abramovich wanders down into the home dressing-room. He sits and listens. He says little. Not because he cannot speak English - his English, which was non-existent, is now reasonably good - but to observe. "He looks like a little boy lost," said the defender Celestine Babayaro, who left Chelsea last month. "He just sits there and takes it all in," one Abramovich associate said. "He enjoys doing that. He is not a psychologist but it's very interesting. He can be very closed, hard to get close to and can just cut you off like that. He never says much." Given that Abramovich's mother died when he was a few months old and his father died when he was four, leaving him to be raised by maternal grandparents in Siberia, psychologists would have a field-day with such behaviour.

But it works. Chelsea's players have, since his arrival, been on their toes. Forays to the Wellington Club are a thing of the past. They want to please him - and not just for the monetary rewards. Win the Champions' League, Abramovich has agreed, and half of all the prize-money is theirs. That's an extra £3m to share on top of their extraordinary salaries. There are similar bonuses for the Premiership.

"He's smart enough to know that he is not the best football manager in the world," one Chelsea source said. So he employs him instead. Abramovich likes Jose Mourinho. He likes, above all, his chutzpah. His self-belief. But both men know that unless Mourinho delivers he, too, like Ranieri will be got rid of. Abramovich expects results because he is paying for it.

It was said last season, by Kenyon, that Abramovich also wanted more excitement. He wanted 4-0 victories, with the last goal a volley from the edge of the area. Certainly, he has never looked as elated as he did during the first Premiership match, in August 2003, when Veron scored against Liverpool at Anfield. But that was partly because of the excitement of the whole event. He also heard the abuse from the Liverpool fans and thought best not to provoke such a response again.

"I think he would like to win 3-0 rather than 2-0," a source said. "But he would rather beat Real Madrid in the Champions' League final than Wolves 7-0 in a League game." Success matters. "It's macro not micro," the source adds. And, of course, Abramovich may get it all this season with his team set to win the Premiership, in the final of the League Cup, and still in for the European and FA Cups. After all, as Birch privately predicted on day one, it will happen sooner or later. The big question is - what happens next?

There is an interesting and not, for Chelsea fans, wholly uncomfortable precedent in Abramovich's ownership of that Russian ice hockey team, Avangard Omsk. He bought them a few years ago, hoovered up the best talent from around the world, including flying in the Czech Olympic medal winners - but did not even attend last month's European Cup Final, which they won, in St Petersburg. He was watching Barcelona at the Nou Camp instead.

"He bought Chelsea because he likes football," one associate reiterated. "But, yes, at some point in the future he will be less interested. I don't think he will ever walk away but he will come and watch them less and less." The investment will be reduced, but will not disappear. That will come as a relief to Chelsea and their fans. But, perhaps, not to the rest of football.