Sat, Jul 05, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Affluent Russians flock to Chelsea

KING'S ROAD CREW Billionaire Roman Abramovich's acquisition of the Stamford Bridge outfit is expected to spark a change of character in the premier league stands

REUTERS , LONDON

When a Russian billionaire left his frozen, Arctic fiefdom to buy Chelsea soccer club, he did more than promise a financial bonanza for the premier league side.

He also opened the door for Britain's affluent and increasingly self-confident Russian community to gatecrash London's social elite via the Stamford Bridge ground.

"Every Russian will be trying to watch Chelsea games and I can guarantee Chelsea's revenues will go up," said Sergei Foster, a Chelsea fan for the 17 years he has lived and worked in London.

On Wednesday, Roman Abramovich, 36, agreed to pay ?60 million (US$99.7 million) for the club, which bagged a Champions League qualifying spot this year after finishing the premier league season in fourth place.

It was pocket money for a man whose estimated US$5.7 billion fortune puts him 49th in this year's Forbes survey of the world's richest people.

"For every Russian being the owner of a British football club is a dream. But the fact that a Russian was allowed to buy Chelsea means that a lot of changes are taking place," Foster said. "Brits have begun to allow Russians into Britain to own property and interests. Twenty years ago people saw us as the bad guys.

"It's like when you sign top-class foreign players. You widen your audience and football's main revenues are coming not from attendance but from TV rights," he said. "It'll be positive provided the Russian owner does not interfere with the sport."

The football club, long a trendy meeting place for the affluent inhabitants of the areas that surround its central London home, hopes some of the city's 20,000 expatriate Russians will become regular visitors to the ground.

Natasha Chouvaeva, editor of London's Russian Courier newspaper, said the deal could be designed to boost the controversial oil and aluminum magnate's prestige back home.

"It's a step on a political ladder, an attempt to be involved in mass sport," she said. "Chelsea was one of the clubs that had more Russian supporters ... because of its involvement with Russian players in the past."

"And it's huge for his public relations here," she said. "Last week everyone was asking who [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was. This week it's Abramovich."

There were some quarter of a million Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union living in south-east England, Chouvaeva said.

"There's no real center for the community, like Turkish north London for example," she said. "They like to live everywhere posh -- Belgravia, Chelsea, Ascot.

"The profile of the community is quite different. A new generation of children has been born and grown up and they're very much English with British lifestyles. It's more middle-class and established," she said.

"We used to give advice on how to find a solicitor or jobs, now it's more about how to find property or how to educate your child in a good private school," she explained. "They are no longer the cowboys from the Russia of perestroika."

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