Soccer: Putin leans on Abramovich to bankroll World Cup

By Tom Parfitt

Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea football club, is to take a leading role in preparations for World Cup 2018 after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin indicated he should "open his wallet" and help pay for the championship.

Abramovich, who already bankrolls the Russian national team, was a prominent member of Moscow's delegation to Zurich, where Fifa last week awarded Russia the right to host the competition.

While he usually shuns publicity, the tycoon could be seen grinning and embracing other members of the delegation, including Arsenal and Russia midfielder Andrei Arshavin.

Abramovich, 44, is expected to stump up millions of dollars as the country embarks on a £2.4 billion ($4.9 billion) plan to build 13 new stadiums and renovate three existing ones. A further £7 billion is needed to improve tourism infrastructure, in particular to build affordable hotels for fans.

Putin said after Russia's win that Abramovich could ease government spending on construction for the World Cup by investing privately. "I don't rule out that Mr Abramovich may take part in one of these projects," Putin said in televised comments. "Let him open his wallet a little. It's no big deal - he won't feel the pinch.

He has plenty of money."

John Mann, a spokesman for Abramovich's holding company, Millhouse Capital, confirmed the businessman was willing to contribute "in partnership with the state".

Last month Forbes magazine rated Abramovich as the 50th richest man in the world with an estimated personal fortune of £7 billion. As the tycoon's wealth recovers from a bruising during the global financial crisis, the stage now seems set for his apotheosis as the saviour of Russian football.

Russia's oligarchs are finely tuned to Kremlin intimations that they should support patriotic national projects: analysts say they are keen to avoid the fate of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has spent seven years in jail on charges of fraud, and is due to be sentenced in a second trial this month. The charges against Khodorkovsky are widely perceived as being trumped up in revenge for him supporting Russia's beleaguered political opposition.

After the rollercoaster 1990s, when Abramovich built up his business empire through a series of opaque auctions of state-owned oil fields, he appeared to have inoculated himself from Kremlin criticism by becoming governor of the remote Arctic region of Chukotka, where he invested huge tranches of his own money.

But he provoked anger when he bought Chelsea in 2003, leading critics to say he was neglecting his homeland, where many football clubs struggle with ageing facilities. Putin hinted on Thursday that the tycoon had still to fully atone for the purchase.

"Mr Abramovich worked for several years as the governor of Chukotka," he said. "He didn't do too badly. Not many people know him from that point of view. Mostly they say he's the oligarch who bought Chelsea football club. In Russia, that's met with both positive and negative emotions."

Abramovich, meanwhile, claims he is simply a fan of the game. In the past his Sibneft oil company sponsored the former Army club, CSKA. And in 2004 he established a national football academy that has built 70 artificial surface pitches for schools across the country.

Russian media reported yesterday that Abramovich was to invest more than £500 million to build a new stadium on the edge of Moscow. The 44,275-capacity arena would be the "best equipped" in the world, they said. Mann denied the claim but hinted that other plans were already in the pipeline.

Several other Russian investors are expected to finance construction for the World Cup. Lukoil, the country's largest oil company, is building a stadium for Spartak Moscow, BTB bank for Lokomotiv, and the Gazprom energy giant for Zenit in St Petersburg.

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