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SOCCER GRAHAME L. JONES

From the Cold War to Goal War

August 18, 2003|GRAHAME L. JONES

Roman Abramovich is a 36-year-old Russian billionaire who made his fortune in the oilfields of Siberia.

Milan Mandaric is a 64-year-old American millionaire who made his fortune in the Silicon Valley of California.

And on England's green fields over the next eight months or so, the two men -- the Russian and the American -- will battle to gain something that money alone can't buy: the championship of the English Premier League.

That battle began over the weekend, and the spoils so far are even.

Abramovich's Chelsea, a team he bought in July and on which he has since spent an astonishing $120 million in an attempt to wrest the league from the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, opened its season Sunday with a 2-1 victory at Liverpool.

Mandaric's Portsmouth, a team he rescued from obscurity and mediocrity by buying it for $8 million in 1999 and coaxing and cajoling it back to the top flight after a 15-year absence, opened its season Saturday with a 2-1 victory at home against Aston Villa.

Soccer is a plaything for Abramovich, who, according to Forbes magazine, is the 49th wealthiest person on the planet with a fortune that has been estimated at between $2.8 billion and $6 billion.

Soccer is a passion for the Serbia-born Mandaric, who once owned the San Jose Earthquakes in the days when George Best played for the then-North American Soccer League club.

Chelsea has not won the English championship since 1955. Abramovich's open-checkbook, buy-player philosophy is intended to change that.

He bought a controlling interest in Chelsea for $49.7 million July 1 -- a move that prompted the English print media to immediately nickname the team "Chelski" -- and now owns more than 95% of the London club.

In the past seven weeks, Abramovich has bought Romania's Adrian Mutu from Parma, Argentina's Juan Sebastian Veron from Manchester United, Cameroon's Geremi from Real Madrid, England's Joe Cole and Glen Johnson from West Ham United, Ireland's Damien Duff from Blackburn Rovers and England's Wayne Bridge from Southampton.

A cool $120 million later, the spending has not ended.

"If I feel we need to buy any particular player to get the results we want, I'll just spend more money," Abramovich told British reporters.

When money is no object, a coach's wish list can include almost anyone, and in recent weeks Chelsea has been linked with such high-profile players as Alessandro Nesta, Patrick Kluivert, Guti, Thierry Henry, Christian Chivu, Danny Mills, Andrei Shevchenko, Rivaldo, Edgar Davids, Patrick Vieira, Ronaldinho, Claude Makelele and Alexei Smertine.

Oh, yes, and David Beckham.

Meanwhile, Abramovich's ongoing investment in English soccer has not set well back home.

"I can't say that I'm happy about this news," Vyacheslav Koloskov, president of the Russian Football Federation and a FIFA vice president, told Russia's RIA-Novosti news agency. "It should be that Russian money is put into Russian sport, Russian soccer, for the pleasure of Russian fans. But that's becoming the way of the world."

Yuri Lazkhob, Moscow's mayor, went even further, saying that Abramovich has "spat on Russia by buying Chelsea."

Mandaric doesn't have such problems. His pockets are deep, but not that deep. And to him, the game isn't a plaything, it's a passion.

One incident early last season, when Portsmouth was underachieving in the English first division and not looking at all like a candidate for promotion to the Premier League, highlighted Mandaric's desire to see his team do better.

"I had just flown back from America that day and went straight to the game against West Brom [West Bromwich Albion]," Mandaric told Reuters later in the year.

"The players just walked around the field. It was terrible to see. I was embarrassed. I was really upset."

So much so that Mandaric withheld the players' wages. They got the message, and by the end of the season Portsmouth, which last won the English championship in 1950, had won the division title and gained promotion.

Portsmouth, the club that former NASL and Major League Soccer coach and U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame member Ron Newman once called home, is unlikely to make a serious run at the Premier League championship this season.

The gap in talent and resources between the top five teams in the league and the other 15 is simply too great.

If Portsmouth can hold its own and stay in the top flight, however, Mandaric will be satisfied.

Abramovich, on the other hand, took over a team that finished fourth last season and thus qualified for the European Champions League.

The Russian oilman and member of parliament would like to become an influential player on that stage too. But in the end Chelsea is not so much an investment as a toy for Abramovich. Ken Bates, the team's chairman and former owner, put it best:

"You've got a man who is in his 30s, he's immensely wealthy, so if he wants to indulge himself in sport, he can do it," Bates told Britain's Radio Five Live.

"It is a hobby -- his business is oil and aluminum -- but he wants to be a success at Chelsea and the omens are looking good."

Passing Thoughts

Anschutz Entertainment Group owns the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, which last month sold starting goalkeeper Tim Howard to Manchester United for a reported $3 million.

Washington D.C. United also is owned by AEG and last week sold starting midfielder Bobby Convey to Tottenham Hotspur for $2 million.

These two moves beg a question: If AEG is willing to sell top American players to overseas teams -- and there is nothing wrong with that -- how long will it be before AEG starts selling top foreign players?

One who immediately comes to mind has scored 42 goals in 48 MLS matches. He is from Guatemala and longs to play in Europe.

Just how long will the Galaxy be able to hold onto Carlos Ruiz if, say, Valencia or Barcelona or -- even more likely -- Atletico Madrid dangles a $10-million check in front of AEG?

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