When soccer, money and Zionism collide

Tournament director Alexei Sapirin noted that holding the tournament in Israel for the second time marks the start of a new tradition.

roman abramovitch 88 (photo credit: )
roman abramovitch 88
(photo credit: )
Four of Russia and Ukraine's top teams, Dynamo Kiev, Shakhtar Donetsk, CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow, along with Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, competed in the Russia Channel One Cup, which has been played at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv over the last 10 days. CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow have reached Thursday's final. The exhibition tournament has engendered a great deal of interest, mainly in Russia, and has attracted many oligarchs who, aside from their interest in watching the matches, were expected to rub shoulders with politicians and public figures. The Football Academy Foundation, which is organizing the tournament, has invested around $8 million in the games. The team that takes first place will receive a prize of $1m., while the runner-up will take home $500,000. The other four teams will share an additional half-a-million dollars. The Academy Foundation, established by Roman Abramovich, develops youth soccer teams in Russia. Over the past year, the foundation subsidized the construction of 50 synthetic fields throughout Russia, granted scholarships for outstanding players worth hundreds of thousands of rubles, and undertook the training of coaches. The foundation also cooperates with Chelsea, the defending champion of the English Premier League and owned by Abramovich. Tournament director Alexei Sapirin noted that holding the tournament in Israel for the second time marks the start of a new tradition. Sapirin emphasized that the reason for the large prizes was that all the participants had pledged to contribute half the prize money to the development of the sports clubs' youth divisions. At a news conference held last month, Sapirin said that he hoped the tournament would strengthen the friendship between the two countries. The tournament was expected to draw hundreds of prominent figures from Russia and Ukraine, including ministers, members of parliament, and many oligarchs. Shakhtar Donetsk's owner, Renat Akhmetov, is believed to be one of Ukraine's wealthiest men, and a political opponent of President Victor Yushchenko. Akhmetov also owns financial management companies as well as iron mines in Kiev and throughout the country. Dynamo Kiev's owners, brothers Gregory and Igor Surkis, also maintain close ties with the nation's government. Gregory is a member of the Ukraine parliament and has been accused of trying to make his way into the government by way of the team. Though FIFA regulations prohibit the ownership of two clubs, it is common knowledge that Abramovich also provides financial support to CSKA Moscow, which was weak throughout the 1990s but has recaptured its strength since early 2001, marking the renaissance of Russian soccer. Jewish oil tycoon Yvgeny Giner poured considerable amounts of money into the team and the ties with Abramovich were initiated after the Sibneft energy company, owned by Giner, signed an adoption contract with CSKA. Abramovich denied that he was investing funds beyond what the adoption contract called for, but FIFA has promised to continue investigating. According to the figures published by Russian media, CSKA's budget totals more than $35 million, 3.5 times the budget of Maccabi Haifa, the reigning Israeli Premier League champion. Spartak Moscow is owned by tycoons Leonid Fedun and Jet Alkhaferov. Fedun's fortune is estimated to be over one billion dollars, and he was previously involved in the privatization of Lukoil. For the participating Israeli teams, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv, and for other teams, the tournament represents an exceptional business opportunity. Many oligarchs view soccer as an excellent way of winning public admiration and political support. Arkadi Gaydamak, who, for example, invested over NIS 170 million in Betar Jerusalem this year, is flirting with the idea of entering politics with the implied support of Jerusalem fans. Sources close to Maccabi Tel Aviv management have already approached the president of Spartak Moscow, Sergey Shaulov, and have suggested he buy the team together with Israeli businessmen David Federman and Meir Shamir. A similar offer was made last year to the Africa Israel owner Lev Leviev, regarding Hapoel Tel Aviv. Then too, hundreds of former Commonwealth of Independent States nationals attended the tournament, and following their arrival in Israel connections were made with the owners of local teams. The deal fell through several months later, after Leviev, who is not known to be a soccer fan, decided that the excessive media exposure, combined with the lack of regard for him and the poking into his past, were too much for him. The ultra-Orthodox public also pressed him not to proceed with the purchase, arguing that it involved the desecration of Shabbat. Recently, the Russian press reported that Abramovich would interest another person in buying the red team. Hapoel sources vigorously denied the rumors. Tournament organizers said that they chose Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv because they finished at the top of the league in the 2005/06 season. Abramovich noted that next year he intends to invite famous teams from the UK and Brazil, as well, to take part in the tournament, and he also promised that the prize money would increase. For the Russian and Ukrainian teams, the trip is a vacation from their countries' harsh winter weather, but for the Israeli squads, the timing is not considered to be ideal, since they are in the midst of league play. However, Hapoel officials said that it was a great honor to participate in such a tournament, and they were expected to make new friends with wealthy businessmen.