He is the wealthiest man in Russia and the George Steinbrenner of soccer — in England.
Oil billionaire Roman Abramovich failed in his attempt to purchase Moscow CSKA, the richest soccer club in his country, in 2003. Flying over London that summer, however, he spotted the stadium known as Stamford Bridge, which sits on fashionable Kings Road. When told the facility was the home of Chelsea FC, a glamorous but debt-ridden club, Mr. Abramovich promptly decided to buy the team.
Soccer hasn’t been the same since.
Two years and $1.2 billion later, Mr. Abramovich’s Chelsea team won the English Premier League championship for the first time in 50 years and in the process became one of the richest clubs in the world.
Chelsea faces D.C. United tonight in an exhibition at FedEx Field. The match is part of a series of games on the East Coast called the “World Series of Soccer.” Chelsea beat Italian powerhouse AC Milan 1-0 on Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., and the teams will meet again Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.
“We’ve always tried to model our team on clubs like Chelsea and AC Milan,” said United President Kevin Payne. “This will be a great night of football in D.C.”
The free-spending Mr. Abramovich has brought Chelsea — affectionately called “Chelski” these days — from out of the shadows of mighty Manchester United and crosstown London rival Arsenal and turned it into one of the biggest sports franchises in the world.
Mr. Abramovich’s next challenge is to conquer Europe and win the prestigious Champions League, the biggest prize in club soccer. Chelsea reached the semifinals of the tournament this year, where it lost to eventual winner Liverpool.
Tonight’s game against D.C. United is part of Chelsea’s preparation to defend its title and begin its march on Europe. For United players, it’s a chance to test themselves against some of the world’s best.
“For me, it will be the greatest thing to happen, just to play against those guys,” United forward Santino Quaranta said. “Hopefully, they will bring their big guns, and it will be another thrill and something to tell the kids about.”
Forbes magazine lists Mr. Abramovich as the richest man in Russia, with a net worth of $13 billion. How this orphan who once sold dolls at street markets earned his first $100 million, which he invested in the oil company Sibneft, remains a mystery.
When Mr. Abramovich is not running his soccer team, he is serving as the elected governor of the frozen province of Chukotka, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. He has big dreams there, as well; he wants to build a tunnel to connect the continents.
And he has a happy constituency in England. Fans burned effigies of American Malcolm Glazer this year when he was in the process of buying control of Manchester United, but no one seemed to mind when the obscure Russian pumped his petro-rubles into the London team.
Mr. Abramovich spent about $400 million to acquire players from all over the globe. Mr. Abramovich also lured Peter Kenyon, the chief executive of Manchester United, to his club. Mr. Kenyon, who made Manchester United the biggest sports franchise on the planet, is set on turning Chelsea into a global brand.
“In the long term, we see the North American market important for Chelsea,” Mr. Kenyon said.
When success didn’t come in the first year of Mr. Abramovich’s control, he fired the coach and brought in the flamboyant Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho, who had won the Champions League with moderate means at Porto.
Success followed — at a steep price. According to the British Broadcasting Corp., Mr. Abramovich spent an average of $1.9 million on the club on each of the 670 days between his takeover and the team’s championship. That daily expenditure represents more than the $1.7 million yearly salary cap of a Major League Soccer team.
Fans seem to appreciate the effort: They now sing “Kalinka,” a Russian ballad, at games as a tribute to their benefactor.
For United fans, tonight’s game provides the chance to watch English standouts John Terry, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole; Icelandic star Eidur Gudjohnsen; Ivory Coast sensation Didier Drogba; Dutch ace Arjen Robben; Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo and Congolese talent Claude Makelele.
The United players are pumped up.
“What a treat, right? … It’s a great experience for us to play such an established team,” Ben Olsen said. “It’s going to be a life experience for myself and a lot of the guys round here. We just want to put on a good show.”