By Alastair Watt –
It is perhaps a sign of globalisation in football that the transfer of a promising midfielder from a provincial Dutch club to trendy West London connects a Russian oligarch and a football administrator-turned-businessman from Western Georgia.
When Marco Van Ginkel made the £8 million switch from Vitesse Arnhem to Chelsea in early July, it was merely the latest act of cooperation between two somewhat strange bedfellows – Roman Abramovich and Merab Jordania, the respective owners of Chelsea and Vitesse Arnhem.
Since the Georgian’s arrival, the Dutch club have become part of a well-oiled “feeder club” arrangement, from which both Vitesse and Chelsea are thought to benefit. The former, like an apprentice mechanic in an Arnhem garage, gets to test-run the latter’s best young prospects in the less demanding straights of the Dutch Eredivisie. Meanwhile, any time Vitesse get their hands on a classic-in-the-making, it is Chelsea who have first refusal.
Such arrangements are far from uncommon, but where does a seemingly harmless exclusive transfer trade route become something more unsporting? One example, for instance, are English Championship club Watford, who were last season widely criticised for fielding a plethora of on-loan players from Udinese – both clubs are owned by the Pozzo family. Notably, the Pozzo family also owns several other clubs around the globe including the Spanish club FC Granada.
Incidentally, Dutch teams are also known for operating feeder clubs around the globe. Ajax Amsterdam own Ajax Cape Town, who compete in the South African Premier Soccer League whilst Twente Enschede – who also cooperate with Manchester United – have sharing agreements with Qarabag FK of Azerbaijan (See Futbolgrad’s article Football in Exile in Nagorno-Karabakh) and the Dayton Dutch Lions of the United States.
Watford and Udinese are unlikely to face each other in a competitive match any time soon, which is probably for the best as UEFA are vehemently opposed to such managerial entanglement. This is outlined clearly in Article 3 of their Europa League Regulations on “Integrity of the Competition” which states that “no individual or legal entity may have control or influence over more than one club participating in a UEFA club competition.”
However, for Vitesse and Chelsea a collision in European competition is more foreseeable. Should Vitesse prosper in the Europa League this season, and if Chelsea – even under the self-proclaimed “special one” – slide out of the Champions League before Christmas like last season, the two could meet in the Europa League knockout stages. When it does, this Dutch-English (or Georgian-Russian?) entente will surely be subjected to UEFA scrutiny.
Futbolgrad therefore asks whether the Chelsea-Vitesse pact is one of transfer market convenience, or whether it extends all the way to dual ownership in disguise?
Promised you a Miracle
At first glance, the goings-on in the last two years at Vitesse Arnhem seems entirely plausible, if not normative.
Van Ginkel had aroused glamorous interest with exciting “box-to-box” performances for the Dutch under-21 side and also in the Eredivisie for Vitesse Arnhem, a club which has historically featured in the mid-table or even lower reaches of the Dutch Eredivisie give or take a season in the late 1990s.
However, the club’s trajectory appears to have taken on a more ambitious course since the arrival of controversial Georgian businessman and former professional footballer Merab Jordania.
The arrival of Jordania – who purports to have earned his money as a football agent and event organiser among other activities – in 2010 as owner came at a time when Vitesse were financially stricken and in need of revival.
Being in such a vulnerable position, the club’s fans were naturally cautious about any new owner, let alone one from Georgia who had served time in prison in his home country for tax evasion and embezzlement. The source of Jordania’s wealth was, and still remains, under question with many attributing his sudden acquisition of a western European football club to the financial involvement of Abramovich.
Eager to quickly get the Vitesse fans onside, Jordania made fanciful promises, the kind which even the most fickle, happy-clapping football fan would question (apart from possibly Heart of Midlothian supporters, who were seduced by Vladimir Romanov’s used-car-salesman promises of Champions League victory in the mid-2000s).
“We will win the Eredivisie within three years” proclaimed the Georgian. This was something the club had never done, in fact when Jordania descended on Arnhem the club had gone eight years without even qualifying for European competition.
Overseeing investment of an estimated €100 million into the club in his first three years, Vitesse’s fortunes have been far more favourable under their mysterious Georgian owner. The Georgian’s promise was not quite delivered, but he got close enough (finishing fourth – 12 points behind Ajax and five behind PSV and Feyernoord.) to appease the supporters and subdue his detractors, at least in the Netherlands.
This summer, Vitesse will enter the Europa League for the second successive season, having been denied a place in the group stages the previous year by the super-rich star-laden Anzhi Makhachkala (read Futbolgrad’s article Anzhi – Kremlin PR in the North Caucasus).
Georgian-Russian Trade Relations
Reportedly introduced to Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich by property developer Alexander Chygrsinky, Jordania has overseen the forging of strong links between the Dutch provincial side and the wealthy west London club.
Relations between Georgia and Russia have been volatile in recent years – hitting a low in August 2008 which saw a five-day war over the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – while only recently have Georgian wine and mineral water re-entered the Russian market following a long-standing trade embargo.
Against this backdrop, the Jordania-Abramovich connection becomes all the more bizarre.
Until this summer, the link had been one-way with several of Chelsea’s expensively acquired youngsters being loaned out to Vitesse to gain first team experience in a respected European league.
Vitesse have prospered on the field with many such loan signings, most notably the Serbian attacker Nemanja Matic who now plays at Benfica.
A total of seven Chelsea prospects have crossed the North Sea to assist Vitesse’s push up the Dutch table but now it seems the time has come for these favours to be returned.
While interest in Bony –who was signed by Swansea City for £12 million – eventually cooled since the return of Jose Mourinho, the Portuguese manager has snapped up Van Ginkel, one of Dutch football’s most sought after emerging talents and a star of this summer’s European Under-21 Championships in Israel.
The Jordania-Abramovich duet gave Chelsea the advantage over other top European clubs, as the 20-year old signed on at Stamford Bridge on 4 July, much to the disgust of Ajax’s sporting director Marc Overmars who wanted to bring Van Ginkel to Amsterdam.
The former Arsenal winger revealed: “We couldn’t have a discussion with the player as Chelsea have a co-operation agreement with Vitesse and were first choice.”
But the Vitesse-Chelsea pact does not end with transfer dealings. Sky Sports reported in early June that Chelsea were being consulted as Vitesse searched for a new manager which recently culminated in the appointment of former Dutch international Peter Bosz.
One of Abramovich’s top advisors, Piet de Visser perhaps unwittingly revealed the tight cooperation between the clubs, and claimed that Chelsea were unhappy with the removal of previous incumbent Fred Rutten.
He went on to claim: “I have given the club two names and I expect them to follow my advice.”
While their respective wealth is not comparable, the decision making of Abramovich and Jordania do draw some clear parallels.
Bosz becomes the sixth head coach of Vitesse in the three years in which Jordania has been in charge, the Georgian displaying an impatience toward managers to match that of the notoriously trigger-happy Russian.
On the field, Vitesse are now well represented by Jordania’s native Georgia with two under-21 internationals in the squad – Giorgi Chanturia and Valeri Kazaishvili – while Georgian player of the year Guram Kashia captains the club.
Georgian press had even speculated that the country’s all-time top scorer Shota Arveladze – now manager of Turkish club Kasimpasa – was ready to join Jordania in Holland, where the former enjoyed successful spells as a player at Ajax and AZ.
Abramovich’s efforts to do likewise and inject a Slav presence into the Chelsea squad were not so successful, with spells of Andriy Shevchenko, Alexei Smertin and Yuri Zhirkov all underwhelming.
Jordania has admitted to attending Chelsea matches alongside Abramovich as these somewhat strange bedfellows in modern football get ever closer.
Oligarchy in football – a Moral Vacuum?
As Sky Sports News celebrated ten years of Abramovich in English football recently, its presenters and studio guest Tony Cascarino (no stranger to a questionable connection) were caught off-guard by Times journalist Matthew Syed, who expressed his unease with the Russian’s influence.
Morality in football is a scarce commodity today – Chelsea supporters may neither care nor know much at all about how their success of the last decade has been financed, while chanting Roman Abramovich’s name incessantly.
The Chelsea owner gets a much less welcoming reception in Russia, as explained by Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center “The super-rich are not popular in Russia. An overwhelming majority see their wealth as ill-gotten gains, and see them as people who enriched themselves at the expense of the people.” However, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, Chelsea are hugely popular in Russia, aided unsurprisingly by their Champions League victory in 2012 – a victory almost impossibly to dissociate with Abramovich’s weighty influence.
Similarly, Syed questioned how Abramovich had acquired his wealth from the Russian energy sector during a time when the seldom lucid Boris Yeltsin oversaw the giving away of state assets.
The oligarchs’ subsequent luxury and comfort were threatened after Yeltsin’s resignation in 1999 to be succeeded by Vladimir Putin. Nonetheless, Roman Abramovich became part of a small group of oligarchs who largely benefited from Putin’s rise to power after 2000. Unlike many of his business partners, Abramovich was able to expand his business empire, and increase his economic wealth. This was partly due to the fact that Abramovich, unlike Mikhail Khordokovskiy, never went into politics, and cooperated with the Russian government when it came to paying tax-debts that his companies had accumulated during the Yeltsin years.
Furthermore, he did not oppose the re-nationalization of industry, and in 2005 he sold Sibneft to Gazprom, which completed the nationalization of most of Russia’s resource based industry. In turn Abramovich was given share packages in important state assets as well as a governor position. This role – the governor of Chukotka – allowed Abramovich to move several of his companies’ headquarters to Russia’s Far East, which enabled him to make use of its favorable tax laws.
Syed then suggested that Abramovich’s move to Chelsea was little more than an act of convenient self-protection from the Russian authorities, whose relationship with its oligarchs had become icy. Many analysts and researchers follow this line of argument and agree that Chelsea acts as Abramovich’s “insurance” policy and although it is an interesting point it completely neglects the fact that Putin and Abramovich have a very close relationship, which Abramovich described as being similar tone of father and son. At the same time Chelsea could indeed be a form of insurance, not from the Putin administration but from a potential change of government. Perhaps Russia’s next administration would not look so favourably on the activities of one of Russia’s richest men.
The Rose Revolution and Georgia’s Football Pariah
Jordania’s relationship with the Kremlin-cosy Abramovich draws a disapproving glare from many back in Georgia, where Jordania was once the president of the Georgian Football Federation.
During the turbulent and dangerous days of early post-Soviet Georgia, Jordania was heavily involved in the running of the national game. As president of the Georgian Football Federation, he was frequently under suspicion of illegally taking advantage of his position to profit from the transfers of Georgian players abroad, most notably with the transfer of Giorgi Kinkladze from Manchester City to Ajax.
During his tenure as president, stadia in the country (see Futbolgrad’s article Georgian Football’s Grounds for Concern) ran into desperate disrepair and the league itself was corrupt and starved of funding. Fans drifted away in their thousands and most are yet to return.
In April 2002, he sacked all members of staff at the Georgian Football Federation
The Rose Revolution of 2003 led by Mikheil Saakashvili saw drastic measures taken to address the endemic levels of corruption in the country. The entire police force was sacked. No longer did people need to carry a few spare tetri to pay off the traffic cops, and in time Georgians felt safer in their cities’ streets which were once rife with crime.
The country’s new president vowed that “no-one is untouchable”.
Good news for most, but not Jordania who was arrested in April 2005 for the alleged misappropriation of around US$1 million – this coming only a year after he had repaid embezzled monies to shimmy his way out of a tax evasion charge.
This was the final nail in the coffin of his presidential term, although he did reportedly pay a large fine in order to be released from custody after a few months.
As years of public inactivity passed, Jordania’s name re-surfaced with the acquisition of Vitesse amid speculation that Abramovich had provided the Georgian with financial assistance. Furthermore, in positioning himself within a Western European football club, Jordania has, like his Russian friend, bought himself ostensible protection from any further proceedings back home.
As for their respective football teams, everything points to this being more than just a “feeder club” arrangement.
Vitesse have been dubbed “FC Hollywood on Rhine” in the Dutch media, and while Jordania is credited with playing the lead role, this show in Arnhem appears very much a West London production.
Alastair Watt is a published sports journalist whose interest in the east was spawned at the age of 7, watching his native Scotland wallop the CIS at Euro 92. Fifteen years later he had his first taste of football beyond the old iron curtain, in a visit to Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine) to see his beloved Aberdeen smash and grab an away goals triumph in the UEFA Cup. Whether it was the Stalinist architecture, the plentiful Pelmeni, or the vodka, further venturing to the post-Soviet Space soon became obsessively frequent before moving to Tbilisi (Georgia) in 2010 where he remains. You can follow Alistair on Twitter @Tbilisidon