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Russian Revolution

March 07, 2005
March 07, 2005

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March 7, 2005

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Russian Revolution

Chelsea's new owner--and his deep pockets--have turned soccer upside down

A FAN'S NOTES

This is an article from the March 7, 2005 issue Original Layout

One of the stranger sights in Britain these days is tens of thousands of West London soccer fans singing Kalinka. This Russian ballad, not previously heard down at the pub or at the stadium, has been adopted by Chelsea supporters in recognition of their benefactor, a Russian whose wealth has transformed a much-mocked team into the envy of Europe.

Roman Abramovich, 38, is the Siberian savior who, since buying Chelsea in 2003, has embarked on a spending spree that makes George Steinbrenner's largesse look paltry. The Yankees have a $200 million--plus payroll. That's loose change to Abramovich, who made it big in post-Soviet Russia by picking up state-owned oil companies for a song. His team's wage bill is $220 million--and that's not counting the nearly $500 million spent on player-acquisition fees in what amounts to a gamble that success can be purchased on international soccer's open transfer market, where stars are bought and sold rather than traded.

Chelsea's last top-flight title--the only one in its 100-year history--came in 1955. Yet today Chelsea stands well clear at the top of the league with 11 games left and also has a chance of winning the European Champions League. The Blues beat Liverpool to win the Carling Cup, a lesser trophy, on Sunday. Chelsea fans, like myself, are rubbing their eyes. For decades the club was a joke, no match for Manchester United and Arsenal, as cursed as the Cubs and often as inept.

Enter Abramovich, a puppy-faced and reclusive billionaire. The price tag for Chelsea--about $250 million--was nothing for a man who uses his own 767 to flit between London and his base 12 time zones away in the frozen Russian province of Chukotka, where he's governor in his spare time. After the purchase he opened his checkbook for players and a new manager, José Mourinho, a master Portuguese tactician lured last year from European champions Porto. (Abramovich has also dabbled on the other side of the Atlantic. After purchasing Chelsea, he reportedly considered buying the Canucks and stocking them with Russian players.) Mourinho has the Blues soaring, but it will take more than the proximity of triumph to dispel a skepticism born of years in the wilderness. Blues fans know every permutation of disaster, and the team's recent FA Cup elimination suggests Abramovich's extraordinary sporting experiment doesn't guarantee success. The Kalinkas may fade quickly if his revolution goes into reverse. But for now we are dreaming, eyes turned to Russia with love. --Roger Cohen

COLOR PHOTOCLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES (TERRY)BLUES FESTIVAL John Terry(above, right) had Abramovich (below) smiling on Sunday.COLOR PHOTOACTION IMAGES/WIREIMAGE.COM (ABRAMOVICH)   [See caption above]