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Derk Sauer is a little Dutchman who became a media mogul in Russia. His company publishes 30-odd titles including Russian Cosmopolitan, Playboy and, until recently, an obscure football magazine. “A very nice magazine but it just wasn’t selling,” he told me over breakfast in Amsterdam last month. Then one day somebody phoned offering to buy it. Sauer wondered why anyone would want such a thing. He asked who the buyer was. It was, of course, the oligarch Roman Abramovich.

“It was his favourite magazine, his bible,” marvels Sauer. “One of our reporters went to Chelsea to interview him, and Abramovich opened a cupboard and there were all these issues of the magazine. Typical Abramovich: he just wanted to have it.”

Personal whims such as these have created football’s new order. Oil men – and not only Russians – are taking over the game. This phenomenon goes far beyond Abramovich at Chelsea. In the 1990s people thought that internet and pay-per-view television would revolutionise football. Later it was supposed to be far eastern money. Instead it has turned out to be oil.

Two things happened. First Russia’s natural wealth was flogged off in a sort of Boxing Day sale. Next, a barrel of Brent crude soared above $60. Together, these two processes produced the richest class of global citizens in history. Free to do almost whatever they wanted with their money, they spent it on footballers. Here are some examples:

■The Gadaffi family, which owns a stake in Juventus, is paying €240m over 10 years to advertise Libya’s oil company, Tamoil, on Juve’s shirts. It’s the biggest shirt deal in football.

■Alexei Fedorychev, fertiliser magnate, briefly played for Dynamo Moscow’s reserves. Last year he bought Dynamo, bought several western players for the largest spending in Russian history, bought Russian football’s television rights, and in August bought another club, FK Rostov. His company, Fedcom, also sponsors AS Monaco, finalists in the Champions League in 2004.

■Kia Joorabchian, a 34-year-old British-Iranian, last year bought the Brazilian club Corinthians. He subsequently bought them the Argentine striker Carlos Tevez for $16m, the largest transfer in South American history. Joorabchian is believed to be funded by his former business contact, the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

■Leonid Fedun, vice president of Russia’s Lukoil, bought Spartak Moscow with other investors. Spartak have since bought their own Argentine striker, Fernando Cavenaghi,
for €11m.

■Next year Arsenal move into the 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium. The airline of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates is paying £100m over 15 years to brand the ground and Arsenal’s shirts. This is Arsenal’s only hope of keeping up with oil-fuelled Chelsea.

■Arkady Gaidamak, an Russian-French- Israeli-Angolan billionaire, bought the Beitar Jerusalem club in August. He has yet to sign any great players.

■The Lithuanian mini-oligarch Vladimir Romanov bought Hearts in Scotland. Romanov did sign some new players and Hearts are currently leading the Scottish league. No Scottish club other than Rangers or Celtic has won the title in 20 years.

■Even in Angola, oil companies fund big clubs.

■While north America’s National Hockey League was on strike, some of the world’s best hockey players moved to the Russian provincial towns of Omsk and Kazan. The local clubs, funded by oligarchs, can probably still match most downsized NHL franchises dollar for dollar.

■Massimo Moratti, the Italian oil refiner, continues to bankroll Inter Milan’s vain pursuit of prizes.

The question is why these moguls are pouring their money into bottomless holes. They certainly aren’t doing it just for fun. George Orwell once remarked of Dickens’s character Mr Jarndyce that nobody who had spent so much effort making his fortune would give it away so easily. It’s natural to speculate that the oligarchs have some dark purpose.

A Dutch magazine caused a stir by alleging that their clubs make up a global money-laundering network. However, this seems improbable: billionaires would scarcely bother using such a well-publicised industry to launder a few million.

It’s possible some of them are buying a country’s friendship by buying a club. Gaidamak, for whom France issued an arrest warrant, seems to believe he can safeguard his future by becoming a prominent Israeli citizen. Abramovich may have similar motives in the UK, should his old mate Vladimir Putin ever tire of him. And the Gadaffis could use Italian friendship if they squabble with the US again.

However, Sauer believes the motivation is simpler. He lives in a posh suburb of Moscow, where his son plays football with Abramovich’s, and after 16 years in Russia he is an anthropologist of the oligarch tribe. Sauer explains: “These people have money but they don’t have status, so what do you do? You try to acquire status. In 1920s America there were tycoons who did exactly the same. They bought newspapers, went into art, that sort of thing.

“Now the Russians are all trying to get out of business. That’s the big trend. Abramovich has just sold his company, Sibneft, to Gazprom. For a lot of the oligarchs, it’s over. They’ll lose their companies one way or another. So they’re trying to get as much money out as possible and then to put it into football.” This is a natural continuation of their careers: beyond your first few million, all business is a quest for status. Italy’s oligarchs have long competed for status through football. Now Russia’s are emulating them.

Next May Chelsea could become the first oil-fuelled European champions. Other clubs will follow but probably not Russian ones. Russian football will probably never amount to anything, because few Russian children play football.

Sauer is chairman of the Moscow Youth Soccer League. Its problem is finding anywhere to play. Currently the league rents a couple of “very old cabbage patches” from Dynamo Moscow for about $30,000 a year. Sauer said: “I wrote to Abramovich, asking whether, for the millions he spends on Chelsea, he might finance a small sports field for some Muscovite children.” Of course there was no reply.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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