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Jun 3, 2013

The story behind Abramovich

This is the story of an orphan from deepest Siberia, whose fragile confidence has barely been bolstered by a bank balance that topped the multibillion-pound mark many years ago.

Diminutive in stature and one of the original pioneers of the highly contentious privatisation of Russia's oil fields in the mid-1990s, he is as famous as he is infamous, as ruthless as he is ambitious, and yet the world has long been denied the chance to get to know the real Roman Abramovich.

While Chelsea's reclusive owner may have been a part of our sporting lives for the past decade, his refusal to grant a single interview, release a statement with quotes attributed to him or offer any kind of public justification for his decisions is set in stone. It seems as if we will only get to see this 46-year-old in action as he orders his employees to dispose of Chelsea managers with alarming haste, yet Abramovich has never felt the need to put himself forward as a spokesman for his own actions. This is a man who lets his deeds do the talking and feels that little more needs to be added.

Jose Mourinho clearly believes that Abramovich is a man he can work with once more after the pair famously fell out and parted company during the Special One's first stint as Chelsea manager, yet his expected return to the club this week suggests the Tsar of Stamford Bridge is not quite as brutal an operator as many believed.

In essence, Abramovich's decision to rehire Mourinho is a public declaration by the owner that he got it wrong when he fired the Portuguese tactician and handed him a huge payoff five years ago. Yet, as tends to be the case with this fascinating individual, speculating over Abramovich's motives, actions and mood swings is all we can do. Rarely has such a public figure insisted upon hiding behind a cast-iron security blanket, yet we were given a fascinating insight into Abramovich as he squared off against his now-deceased former business partner Boris Berezovsky in a London courtroom last year.

As tends to happen, the apparently bulletproof Abramovich walked away from the 6.5 billion-pound action brought against him as the victor, but with the London Olympics dominating the news agenda, his appearance in the witness box barely received the kind of coverage it merited.

While secrecy has been his constant sidekick since he sealed the contentious deal to found the Sibneft oil company back in 1995, the unexpected honesty with which he spoke in court may well have been vital in securing his positive verdict against Berezovsky. For those of us intrigued by Abramovich's empire, his courtroom appearance was a gift not to be missed as we finally heard from the man himself (albeit through a translator), with one of his revelations going some way to explaining why we have never seen him in front of a camera.

"I never make any public statements, at least I try never to make any public statements," he told a judge in the Rolls Building of London's High Court. "I know I don't do it well. I become very nervous, I forget what it is that I mean to say.

"I can't really convey my logic and my thought to the journalists, so I decided this is not my thing, I really shouldn't be doing it. I really don't retain information. By the time I arrive wherever I'm going, I already forget what it is that I wanted to say."

Abramovich's suggestion that his mind wanders midway through sentences suggests he is the kind of decision-maker whose impulses may not always be entirely considered, with spur-of-the-moment calls a more prominent part of his repertoire than they should be.

His critics may argue that is one of the reasons he has changed Chelsea managers at such a rapid rate, yet his bravado at Stamford Bridge seems at odds with the private man who has gone to great lengths to remain under a cloak of secrecy down the years. Abramovich's desperation to keep his business dealings out of the limelight may stem from the story he told in court of a Russian Communist Party member who was hounded out of his country after he replicated Abramovich and acquired a chunk of the nation's oil reserves.

"He did everything honestly and above board, but you can't imagine what happened in the country," Abramovich stated. "People were saying that he should be put in prison. 'This is unbearable, this is shameful, nobody has the right to earn so much' -- and in the end he left for the U.K. I decided that I was not going to stick my neck out." Abramovich said in court that his acquisition of Chelsea in 2003 was "a turning point" in his life and insisted he "never aspired to be a public figure," even though his game-changing move into the football business ensured he would become just that. Yet attention has never been the prize he is chasing.

A proud Jew, Abramovich has a nervous demeanour that might stem from a traumatic childhood that saw his mother Irina pass away during a botched backstreet abortion, before his father Arkady was killed in a construction accident. Abramovich was a toddler at the time. His early business enterprises were less than promising, with his formative years including a spell in the Russian military. He also worked briefly with a company that manufactured plastic ducks and in a welding enterprise.

The Sibneft deal that transformed his life in an instant remains the most controversial part of his story, with the lucrative ramifications forming the centerpiece of his court battle as his former friend claimed he was entitled to more from the oil business.

Berezovsky's association with Russian President Boris Yeltsin was believed to be crucial in sealing a coup that allowed Sibneft to acquire a chunk of the nation's oil reserves for a relatively modest sum, which propelled Abramovich into the world's rich lists in an instant.

Sibneft was sold to current Champions League sponsor Gazprom in 2005 for a reported $13 billion, while Abramovich's Stamford Bridge-based Millhouse Capital group also sold its interests in OAO Russian Aluminium in 2001. The deals ensured that the figurehead of the company was not only rich on paper, but lavished with liquid assets to boot.

To this day, the Russian oligarchs are accused of taking advantage of their nation and its wealth, yet while many involved in the deals have seen their fortunes trimmed and some have even ended up behind bars, Abramovich's enduring healthy relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin is viewed as the main reason why he has not been challenged.

In any case, if the Russian government tried to go after Abramovich now and claim the money in his bank account should be sitting on the state's balance sheets, he could argue his fortune is no longer at his disposal.

With his investment in Chelsea worth around 1 billion pounds and his huge portfolio of properties, cars, yachts and planes said to be worth just as much, Abramovich has spread his wealth into so many different enterprises that his liquid assets are hardly as plentiful as they once were.

Love him or loathe him, Roman Abramovich is rich enough and powerful enough to do whatever he wants, and while Mourinho may be the apple of his eye all over again, the owner has proved time and again that ousting the returning hero at Chelsea is a task he wouldn't shirk from if he wasn't getting his own way.

The Abramovich Insiders

Few have infiltrated Roman Abramovich's inner circle in recent years, but these figures have been loyal associates for some time:

Bruce Buck -- The Chelsea chairman is a long-standing acquaintance of Abramovich since his days running the oil company Sibneft. He remains close to the Russian and regularly attends postmatch press conferences at Stamford Bridge to keep an eye on Blues managers.

John Mann -- Media enquiries relating to Abramovich have long been directed toward this PR guru, yet interview requests no longer trouble his doorstep as journalists gave up on securing that scoop many years ago. Mann is hardly the most outspoken spokesperson, but he did emerge to deny that his client was arrested in New York a few months ago.

Marina Goncharova -- This no-nonsense Russian lady has worked for Abramovich since his days as a plastic duck seller, and she was a key figure in his oil company, Sibneft. She is still among his confidants to this day.

Michael Emenalo -- After sacking Ray Wilkins in 2010, Abramovich appointed Emenalo as Chelsea assistant manager. Today, Emenalo is the club's sporting director. Rafael Benitez confirmed that Emenalo, the former Nigeria international defender, was his link to Abramovich when Benitez took over as Blues manager.

The Roman Empire

Roman Abramovich was forced to reveal some of his personal assets before running for a regional Russian political post in early 2011, and while he won the election with 92 percent of the votes, his list of lavish toys was a more interesting sideshow.

* At the time, he owned 28 properties (nine houses, seven flats and 12 plots of land). Of his seven flats, one is in Russia and the rest are in Britain. It has been reported the flats are located in central London and are worth about 120 million to 150 million pounds each.

* His collection of seven cars includes BMWs, Mercedes, a Range Rover and a curiously modest Volkswagen Golf. Many of his cars are reported to be bombproof and bulletproof.

* He owns a Boeing 767-300 aeroplane worth over 100 million pounds.

*Abramovich is a huge fan of yachts, and his 164-metre Eclipse pleasure cruiser cost about 675 million pounds.

* The Chelsea owner is a big art fan, and he purchased Francis Bacon's "Triptych 1976" for 61.4 million euros in May 2008. His current partner, Dasha Zhukova, is also a huge art fan, and the couple had a son together named Aaron in 2009.

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