The story of Rafa Benitez’s Sunday evening at Roman Abramovich’s Kensington mansion reveals that you are lured into trusting the Russian at your peril. That vague, seemingly coy countenance he presents is extremely deceptive.
It was January 2013 and Benitez was doing a good job of picking up the pieces at Chelsea when, hours after a 2-1 win over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, he ended up at Kensington Palace Gardens for a soiree that finished with him playing indoor football with Abramovich’s children.
The Spaniard could have been forgiven for thinking he perhaps stood a chance of seeing his temporary management role made permanent, with only three league defeats to follow in the second half of the season.
Roman Abramovich has shown as Chelsea owner he is a ruthless commercial operator
But he never saw Abramovich again. He was released that summer, despite winning the Europa League and guiding Chelsea to a third-place finish.
That’s how it always is with Abramovich — the anonymous man we’ve never heard speak all these years. Who, with the help of the expensive PRs that so many of the wealthy oligarchs hired in London, has confected the ludicrous notion that he is congenial and benign.
He is a ruthless commercial operator. No one should be surprised by his apparent willingness to renege on his promise to write off a £1.6billion debt at Chelsea.
If Abramovich had any sentiment whatsoever, then you imagine his own family history would have moved him to challenge — privately, if not publicly — the destruction of lives, families and homes in Ukraine by his arch protector Vladimir Putin.
Rafael Benitez was released in 2013, despite winning the Europa League that season
Abramovich’s grandmother, Faina Grutman, was a Ukrainian, who fled to Russia at the start of the Second World War with her three-year-old daughter, Irina.
A brilliant new piece of reporting by L’Equipe reveals how Abramovich’s Lithuanian grandfather, Nachman, was forced from his own native country by Russia, when Joseph Stalin ‘Sovietized’ Lithuania in 1940.
Abramovich’s father, Aronas, and his two siblings were forced to flee their home village of Taurage with their mother. They would never again see their father, who was killed on a construction site while in exile.
But Abramovich seems to have left that kind of detail firmly in the past. He has made his money by always having ‘the intelligence to be loyal to the power in place’ in Russia, according to one associate who has followed his path to mind-boggling wealth. ‘He’s good at having people with him and coming across as humble,’ says another.
No one should be surprised by his apparent willingness to renege on his promise to write off a £1.6billion debt at Chelsea
His money-making started out in a prosaic way, the L’Equipe piece reveals. He did very nicely out of making cheap plastic copies of Western children’s toys.
But he charmed his way into Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle and to unimaginable wealth when Russia’s first president was shifting the country from communism to capitalism and allowing the thrusting young oligarchs to buy up all the nation’s assets, in the Wild West post-Soviet years. Abramovich’s friendship with Yeltsin’s influential daughter, Tatyana, was significant.
Then he charmed his way into Putin’s inner circle, despite Yeltsin’s despotic successor’s utter contempt for the oligarch asset strippers, as he viewed them — and for Yeltsin.
One of the dozens of witnesses interviewed by Catherine Belton for her award-winning book Putin’s People offers an insight into how Abramovich somehow managed to become a Putin acolyte, too. Flattery. ‘A row of fine Italian suits and shoes had suddenly appeared hanging in the hallway of Putin’s residence, courtesy of Abramovich.’ Abramovich denies this.
Belton’s book details many more manoeuvrings and for Abramovich those habits run deep. He presented himself as a peacemaker between Ukraine and Putin after the invasion, last month — despite denying links to Putin so aggressively that his lawyers threatened action against any who had the audacity to suggest it. Was there actually anything genuine in that story of him as mediator?
He presented himself as a peacemaker between Ukraine and Vladimir Putin after the invasion
Moscow’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, founded by the jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, certainly has its doubts: ‘He is a creative guy and has creative people working for him, so it can just be a way to have a chance to ease the sanctions.’
There is a fog of uncertainty about the £1.6bn debt. Mobile numbers suddenly proved unobtainable when we tried to get an understanding of it on Wednesday. ‘No comment today’ from an executive who appeared to have a link to Camberley International Investments, to which the small fortune is supposedly to be transferred.
Football talk might seem simplistic amid the unravelling of such unfathomable levels of wealth but sometimes it can offer insight. Benitez was not at Chelsea long enough to get a handle on Abramovich but in retrospect, the words of Jose Mourinho now ring true.
‘He was never my friend,’ said the manager who delivered Abramovich arguably his greatest years at Stamford Bridge.
‘We always had the relationship of owner-manager. A very respectful relationship. We were never friends, never close to each other. So, no. He is just a person that I keep respected.’
Jose Mourinho (left) insisted Abramovich (right) was never his friend at Stamford Bridge