Alisher Usmanov wants the directors of Arsenal football club to be independent as a price for his not being represented on the board, but warns that he will take on anybody who tries to push him out of the club.
The Russian billionaire, whose Red & White Holdings investment vehicle owns 23 per cent of the English premiership club, also made plain his disgust at allegations levelled against him.
Sitting at an ornate boardroom table beneath a magnificent square-shaped chandelier in his Moscow office, Mr Usmanov says: “I am not a vindictive man, but I am not a whipping boy as well.”
Peter Hill-Wood, Arsenal chairman, has alluded to Mr Usmanov’s allegedly murky business background after claims made by Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador in Uzbekistan, on his blog.
“People talk about me as an Uzbek businessman involved in narcotics and in a shady regime. It is beyond my dignity to respond to all these allegations …I don’t even want to qualify what Mr Murray says about me.”
Decrying the “prejudice material” written about him, Mr Usmanov says he is tiring of firing off various law suits. Asked whether the continuation of such allegations would make him think about walking away from Arsenal, he says: “I’ll think about it.” But enemies were left in no doubt he would not shirk a fight. “If it is initiated to drive me out, I stay.”
Mr Usmanov, 53, has become one of Russia’s richest businessmen, with his personal wealth estimated at £5bn. An adviser to Gazprom, he is general director of Gazprominvestholding, has iron and steel assets in Australia and Canada, and owns the Russian newspaper Kommersant and TV stations. He has bought the entire art collection of Mstislav Rostropovich, the late Russian cellist, for £26m at an auction by Sotheby’s, as a gift to the Russian nation.
However, it is his stake in Arsenal that is bringing him widespread and unwanted attention.
Speaking sometimes through an interpreter, Mr Usmanov, a large man with a fondness for bitter beer and pubs, displayed equal bouts of humour and irritation in his two-hour interview.
“I don’t want a blocking stake,” he thundered, banging his fist on the table, when asked if his gradually increasing stake was intended for some mischief-making. Mr Usmanov made clear his interest in Arsenal was as a long-term investment and that he and Farhas Moshiri, his business partner and joint owner of Red & White Holdings, intend to take the stake up to 25 per cent. Mr Moshiri says that while Red & White would not make any takeover move on the club, if a majority stakeholder put a significant stake up for sale, “the whole dynamic changes”. They also want the board to consider paying dividends.
He and Mr Moshiri had considered bids for Tottenham and Liverpool in the past two years.
Arsenal, however, is his professed footballing love, representing British values akin to Corus, the steelmaker in which he and Mr Moshiri invested in 2003. “I placed my bets and I won,” he says of the Corus investment. “I made around £300m”.
Yesterday’s interview was the start of a period of engagement with the board. Their plans for a direct line of communication come in the face of a continuing war of words between the board and David Dein, the club’s former vice-president who sold his 14.6 per cent stake to Mr Usmanov and Mr Moshiri for £75m and is Red & White’s chairman.
Speaking about the tension between Mr Dein and the board, Mr Usmanov says: “I don’t want his personal relationship with the current board to in any way affect my relationship with the board. From our side, I will try to convince David Dein to be less hostile to the current board.”
Mr Usmanov makes clear that the lock-down agreement in April signed by majority shareholders representing 45 per cent of the shares was unacceptable.
“The board must be independent. If it is independent, we do not have to have representation,” he says.
The majority shareholders on the board, including Danny Fiszman and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith, will take note that Mr Usmanov is a man who does not like to be pushed around or to have allegations thrown at him.
Of his accusers, he says: “I am ready [to take them on] any day. I don’t have to be in a position to clear my name.”
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