The richest game on the planet

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Five years ago, Roman Abramovich took over a Chelsea Football Club on the verge of financial meltdown. Yet within a week of his taking control, signs were apparent that the West London club meant serious business.

Here's the type of fiscal muscle the Russian billionaire was prepared to flex.

Not having realized that crowd favorite Gianfranco Zola had been sold to Italian club Cagliari, Abramovich immediately tried to buy him back. When that failed, Abramovich reportedly tried to bring the player back by buying the club.

On Wednesday, the richest man in sports heads to the richest game on the planet seeking the ultimate justification of his lavish spending – an investment that totals an estimated $1 billion and has transformed Chelsea into one of Europe's finest teams.

For Abramovich, the significance of the UEFA Champions League final being held in Moscow is immense. For players and fans from both Chelsea and its opponent, Manchester United, the location matters little; deliverance of the trophy is all that counts.

Yet while the game may be decided by a moment of magic from United's Cristiano Ronaldo or a fairytale finish from Paul Scholes, or the ruthless efficiency of Chelsea's midfield machine or the brilliance of its goalkeeper Petr Cech, one common factor makes this game what it is.


Nothing can replace the World Cup final as soccer's biggest game, but in terms of the talent on display, there is no greater spectacle than the championship game of the most important club competition in the sport.

You can't wheel and deal in transfers in the international game. The only limits imposed upon the über-rich men who wield power at the club level are those set by the transfer window and by the rivaling ambitions of their opponents.

In this competition, money doesn't simply talk. It screams its lungs out, as proven by recently released Forbes figures that revealed Abramovich as the wealthiest man in world sports and Silvio Berlusconi, president of last year's Champions League winner AC Milan, at No. 2. The Glazer family, the American owners of Man United, is ninth on the richest-owners list.

A study on the impact of a Champions League title further underscored the tournament's high stakes. Factoring in sponsorships and TV deals, higher players' values and ticket-sales growth, the report found that this year's European crown will eventually be worth more than 85 million pounds ($166 million).

"The 2008 UEFA Champions League final is not only the greatest prize in European club football, but it is also expected to be the biggest yet in economic terms, with a total cumulative impact that could amount to upwards of 210 million pounds," professor Simon Chadwick of England's Coventry University, which conducted the study, said in a statement this week.

To win such prizes, money has been plowed into top-level soccer like never before over the past three years, with much of the investment concentrated upon the English Premier League. The continuing global popularity of the Premiership's product, plus the enticement of a new multi-billion dollar television deal, grabbed the attention of the mega-investors.

The Glazers courted controversy by using highly leveraged borrowing to fund their purchase of Man United, and their involvement was greeted with fury by many supporters who feared for the club's future. A Man U victory on Wednesday would be a perfect response for the notoriously media-shy Floridians.

UEFA chief Michel Platini would like to see licensing implemented to restrict the level of borrowing and leverage that owners are able to use to buy clubs. For example, United is currently valued at 919 million pounds but its debts sit at 551 million pounds.

"Licensing will come and, when it does, no longer will clubs be able to win through debt," said Platini, who may face a fight from clubs attempting to argue that such a ruling would constitute restriction of trade.

For now, the dominance of English teams shows no sign of abating. With three of the four tournament semifinalists the past two seasons and both finalists for the first time ever, the Premiership is king.

The EPL's dual representation in the final will only make defeat even more agonizing for the losers, a fate Abramovich is desperate to avoid. Even after two Premiership titles and two second-place finishes in the league, the European crown is the one he really wants in order to complete an incredible rollercoaster ride.

On Wednesday evening at Luzhniki Stadium, at least 90 minutes will separate Chelsea and Manchester United from triumph or disaster. Abramovich, having spent frightening sums of money, is banking on the former.

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