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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 July, 2003, 06:56 GMT 07:56 UK
Chelsea owner seeks 'fun and trophies'

By Jeff Randall
BBC Business Editor

Roman Abramovich
Roman Abramovich: "It's not about making money"
Sitting in one of Chelsea's luxurious millennium suites, Roman Abramovich has the perfect view of the club that he has just bought for 140m.

He appears to like what he sees and chats confidently about his plans.

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, the Russian oil tycoon explains to me why he's pumping a fortune into the west London side and what he's hoping for in return.

We communicate through an interpreter, Eugene Tenenbaum, who is also one of Abramovich's associates. His English is flawless; I hope his Russian is too.

"Money?" I ask Abramovich. "Is this deal about making a profit?"

He laughs. "No, it's not about making money. I have many much less risky ways of making money than this. I don't want to throw my money away, but it's really about having fun and that means success and trophies."

Rich man's toy

Dressed in a grey suit, smart blue shirt but no tie, he looks more like an advertising executive than a multi-billionaire who is reported to be Russia's second wealthiest man.

I enjoy England and I'd like to see every Chelsea game
Roman Abramovich

Facially, he bears an astonishing resemblance to Woody Allen without the glasses.

I'm curious why he chose an English club rather than, say, a Russian one or a top continental side. He doesn't bother with pretence about being a Chelsea fan, cutting instead straight to the business analysis.

"We like England because it has the most competitive league in Europe. It's easier to buy here because many of the clubs are publicly quoted. We examined several and chose Chelsea, partly because it was for sale."

In effect, he admits that his purchase is a rich man's plaything. But it's a toy on which Abramovich intends to spend a lot more time and even more money.

"I can afford to fly in and out of the UK and back to my job in Russia. I enjoy England and I'd like to see every Chelsea game, though that may not be possible."

As if to demonstrate his commitment, he tells me that he will be sending his children to school here.

Why? "Because you have hundreds of years of educational excellence and you can't argue with that."

Fresh investment

I press him on how much he is prepared to inject into the club, above the 60m he is paying for the shares and the 80m he'll burn covering the club's debts.

I'm realising my dream of owning a top football club. Some will doubt my motives, others will think I'm crazy

It's the only time he dodges a question. Avoiding promises about funds for transfers, he simply asks the fans to give him time to build a team for the future.

But later, Ken Bates, Chelsea's chairman, tells me that Abramovich has earmarked an additional 60m for the club.

That's roughly 30m for investment in a new training ground and other facilities, and 30m for players. If the cash materialises, it should just about buy the fans' goodwill for a season.

The Russian may not, however, keep all the sideshows that Bates built up around the football club, such as hotels and conference halls. "If I decide they are burdens, I'll look at other options", he says.

Ruthless core?

Time to ask the tough question. "Look Mr Abramovich, you're 36, outrageously rich and Russian. To many here that sounds very dodgy."

He shrugs. "Yes, I know what people say. But there are lots of rich, young people in Russia. We don't live that long, so we earn it and spend it.

"I'm realising my dream of owning a top football club. Some will doubt my motives, others will think I'm crazy."

It's not easy to judge a man when conversing in different languages, but I leave the interview with the impression that underneath Abramovich's diffident wrapping, there's a ruthless core.

So far he's done the easy bit: blowing a king's ransom on a glamorous club that's guaranteed European Champions League matches next season.

A much tougher challenge will be withstanding the intense scrutiny of his business affairs by British newshounds (remember Mittal?) that will inevitably follow his emergence as a public figure in London.

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