Chelsea saved and rich

ONE moment Ken Bates, Chairman and chief of Chelsea, is contemplating meltdown, the immediate prospect of the club going into administration, unable to pay its massive �90 million debts. The next, enter a Russian billionaire who shells out �150 million, buys the club and puts �17 million into Bates' pocket.


Russian businessman Roman Abramovich, who has bought the English football club Chelsea.-Pic. AFP

ONE moment Ken Bates, Chairman and chief of Chelsea, is contemplating meltdown, the immediate prospect of the club going into administration, unable to pay its massive �90 million debts. The next, enter a Russian billionaire who shells out �150 million, buys the club and puts �17 million into Bates' pocket. Not bad going for the man who bought the club but not the ground for �1, couldn't reportedly rustle up �650,000 to buy Stamford Bridge itself, all but lost it to the various developers who in turn did buy it, only to be able to reclaim it when the bottom fell out of the London property market and Stamford Bridge was Chelsea's again.

The Russian billionaire, as the world well knows by now, is the 36-year-old Roman Abramovich who given the fate of his fellow Russian billionaires of late may well have every reason to spend most of his time in England in the future, besides domiciling his wife and educating his children here. Almost at the very time he was gobbling up Chelsea, two other Russian billionaires were hauled in by the Russian Government, one kept in custody; the other, Russia's richest man, released with a smile on his face. Much nearer at hand in London is Boris Berezovsky, not long ago reputed the most powerful man in Russia, but now fighting not to be extradited to face charges of corruption.

The real sin of these three billionaires, who like Abramovich bought up huge public companies on the cheap when the Soviet Union broke up, appears to be that they have defied Russia's implacable President Vladimir Putin by backing political opposition. Putin, given the first flamboyant official reception by the British Government since the last Czar Alexander in the 19th century, closed down the last independent Russian TV station. It looks as if Roman has cleverly kept his head down and thus kept out of trouble, but it is significant enough that he travels in an armour-plated car surrounded by bodyguards. If you are a Russian millionaire and the Government don't get you, it is odds on that someone else will.

From that point of view, Bates and Chelsea may feel some small trepidation; but overall you can call Bates a very lucky man. Lucky because, having failed to secure the Bridge when he might have done so, he retrieved it in the end. Lucky because his grandiose policies, which had plunged the so-called Chelsea Village company of which Chelsea FC is a part, had not at the last gasp come home to roost. You may remember that a few years ago a very rich City wheeler-dealer called Matthew Harding bought into the club and spent huge sums of money to improve the stadium. Bates hated him.

Bates wanted the large area behind the standing room area known as The Shed to be given over to hotels and restaurants. Harding wanted Chelsea to remain essentially a football club. Harding died in a helicopter crash on the way back from watching a Chelsea Cup tie. Bates built the hotels and restaurants incurring colossal debt, added to the vast amounts spent on salaries and transfer fees for foreign stars. Whether the hotels and restaurants will ever pay their way remains debatable. That it doesn't matter any more is undoubted.

Hardly reassured by Roman's equivocal remarks about his position is the Chelsea manager, in fact a Roman himself, Claudio Ranieri. I thought Chelsea were over precipitate in handing him a five year contract on the eve of the 2002 FA Cup Final in which he got things badly wrong and Chelsea lost to Arsenal. There has been talking of enlisting Fabio Capello, presently manager of Roma who have not done too well of late; he has two years left on his contract, still. And of England's coach Sven Goran Erikkson whose own contract also has several years left, but whom the Football Association, in their present parlous financial straits, would probably jettison with glee; it costs them �3 million a year. Whether Eriksson, who has hardly covered himself with glory in his England role since that remarkable 5-1 World Cup qualifying win over Germany in Munich would be any kind of improvement over Ranieri is disputable.

Meanwhile, ironic indeed, hardly had Roman bought up Chelsea than the club had lost one of its finest and best loved players in Gianfranco Zola. The little Sardinian, who has just turned 37, finished last season in glorious form, scored 16 goals, and was promptly and absurdly told that his salary would be heavily cut on the grounds of his age. So he put off signing a new contract, and finally agreed to join Cagliari, the one big job on his native island. This for less than �400,000 a year when Chelsea coming to their senses were ready to pay him four times that. And Roman reportedly prepared to buy him back and pay him double even that vast sum.

No use. You upset modest, decent, honest, gifted Gianfranco at your peril as ex-manager Gianluca Vialli found when he callously left Zola entirely out of a midweek evening home game with Spurs without even bothering to tell him in advance. Tactfully says Zola he wants his young son to be acquainted with Italian life but what difference would one more year in London have made? Plus the fact that Zola won't even be playing in Serie A but in Serie B. "Maybe I made a mistake but it's too late," he says.

You want another irony? By the time he was 23 years old Cagliari had still not tried to sign Zola who was paddling about in the shadows of C2 4th division football. Then Napoli were persuaded to give him a chance, he came under the wing of Diego Maradona and he had a lift off. Even though his subsequent career was peppered with disappointments such as being unfairly sent off in the 1994 World Cup and not picked for the 1998 Finals even though he'd scored the winner against England at Wembley in the qualifiers.

The moral? Dare we say that in the old adage, money isn't everything? Chelsea and their deeply disappointed fans will badly miss Zola. Abramovich may or may not be able to buy success in a market which has so severely shrunk, and Chelsea rather than going bankrupt will become one of the major if not the major payers. There is talk of Roman being officially "investigated". Why, when just down the road Fulham are owned by Mohamed Fayed who can't even now obtain British citizenship.