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Abramovich: The billionaire from nowhere by Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins

Release date: 05th October, 2004
Publisher: Harper Collins

List Price: £18.99
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Soon after the halfway point in this book, the authors ask, "So just why did a publicity-shy Russian oligarch decide to buy an English Premier League side?" It's a good question and, having used the preceding 180-odd pages to construct the most comprehensive picture of Abramovich yet published, they arrive at an entirely feasible conclusion. "Abramovich knows," they say, "that, in spite of all the favours he has done for President Putin, he is vulnerable to being turned against at any time. By buying ChelseaÖthe man became a household name in his adapted country. In the event of an attack by Putin, which British prime minister (sic) would be brave enough to refuse him asylum?"

Roman Abramovich's story is one of political intrigue, ruthlessness and opportunism; as such, it falls into the 'truth is stranger than fiction' category, comfortably surpassing (in terms of both plot and writing) anything that could be served up in a fictional thriller.

Our ongoing fascination with Abramovich is almost certainly due to his comparative youth: how did someone so young accumulate such incredible wealth? Midgley and Hutchins go as far as anyone has in detailing young Roman's entrepreneurial tendencies and shrewd business moves.

At school, Abramovich was 'an average student' who failed to win any academic prizes; there is uncertainty about whether he completed any form of further education, although by 1985, he was in the Russian army, posted 50 miles north east of Moscow. Here, his organising ability began to come to the fore; by the time he returned to Moscow in 1987, with President Gorbachev having lifted the ban on private enterprise, Abramovich was able to launch a doll-making company called Uyut which generated significant revenues.

As economic reform accelerated once the Soviet Union collapsed, Abramovich recognised a gap in the oil trading market where success depended upon his ability to acquire an export licence. There are several unsavoury - and unproven - accounts of how he raised sufficient capital with which to trade in oil, but once established, he had a licence to print money.

Nevertheless, Abramovich's big break came when he was introduced to Boris Berezovsky, his mentor who ensured that when, in 1995, a virtually bankrupt Russia was forced to borrow money from the nation's oligarchs, he (Abramovich) managed to acquire a significant stake in the State oil company, Sibneft. Between them, Abramovich and Berezovsky bought Sibneft for $200m; by 2003, the company was valued at $15 billion.

Ably supported by the phenomenal sums of money Sibneft produced, Abramovich quickly moved into Russian politics' inner circle, but also realised that the 'auction' process by which he and Berezovsky had managed to buy Sibneft left a little to be desired. Clearly, Russia's modern-day political intrigue and manoeuvring is worthy of a European Renaissance court and importantly, it effectively bought Abramovich time to look outside of Russia for further business opportunities.

In 2003, it befell the football agent Pini Zahavi to broker a deal between a virtually bankrupt Chelsea owner, Ken Bates, and Abramovich whereby the Russian bought the club for £60m and assumed a further £80m worth of debt. The deal was concluded within a very short period after Abramovich had earlier considered buying an Italian or a Spanish club as well as Manchester United.

This book provides the most fascinating account of how Abramovich managed to accumulate over £7.5 billion in the space of a decade and should be read by anyone not just with an interest in sport, but also in business and politics.


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