Recent revelations about the owner of Chelsea FC – Roman Abramovich – set me thinking about what could happen with regard to Everton FC’s plans for a new stadium. Abramovich is close to Russian president Vladimir Putin, and has been having great difficulty in renewing his visa for the United Kingdom. Connections have been made between the sources of his huge wealth and the desirability of allowing him further residence within the United Kingdom in these tense times in Anglo-Russian relations.
As a result, he has pre-empted any attempt to bar him entry by applying for Israeli citizenship (he is a Jew, and can easily do so under the Israeli “right to return” law). This would not only give him ten years’ tax-free status in Israel for his massive overseas income; it would also enable him to visit the UK without a visa. More immediately relevant to local concerns, he has halted his planned investment in a £1 billion new stadium for Chelsea FC. I will explain the possible connection.
Another oligarch resident in London, and involved in football club ownership, is Alisher Usmanov. Also a friend of Putin, this multi-billionaire is the second biggest share holder in Arsenal FC. However, his attempts to buy out that club have been thwarted by its American owner, Stan Kroenke. Thus, Usmanov is said to have been looking elsewhere to fulfil his football ambitions. This is where matters become interesting for the people of our city-region, because his business partner is Farhad Moshiri, principal shareholder in Everton FC. Indeed, their joint company USM, based in the tax-dodging British Virgin Islands, is the sponsor of Everton’s training ground at Finch Farm (you may recall that the freehold for this facility was bought at tax payers’ expense by Mayor Anderson in another flight of football fancy).
Last year, a company called Appleby which has a base (amongst other off shore favourites) in the Isle of Man – another haven for tax dodgers – had its confidential files compromised, and they became known as the “Paradise Papers”. This company exists to help the rich and the super-rich to avoid paying tax, and to keep their affairs hidden under a cloak of secrecy. Unfortunately for them, the leak of the papers blew their cover.
Many big names were shown to use these morally reprehensible services, including those of Moshiri and Usmanov, via their involvement in Blue Heaven Holdings, registered in the Isle of Man. The strong suggestion was that Moshiri’s buy-in to EFC was facilitated by Usmanov’s money. Needless to say, both Moshiri and Usmanov denied this. If it was the case, Usmanov would have been in breach of rules prohibiting anyone having a major shareholding in more than one football club. However, there remains intense speculation that Usmanov might yet emerge as the owner of EFC, once he has disposed of his Arsenal shareholding.
You might ask what all of this has to do with the city-region. Well, it would have major implications for the city-region, for EFC, and for its proposed new stadium. For example, what would happen if there was to be a continued crackdown on Putin’s cronies domiciled in the UK? What if it was applied to Usmanov as it appears to have been to Abramovich? It may seem far-fetched at the moment as he is not an official stakeholder in EFC. Yet, if Abramovich is the yardstick for the good faith of Russian oligarchs in football, it would not augur well for EFC and the city.
I realise that some fans do not give a hoot as to who might own EFC as long as they have a huge bank balance and a willingness to dip into it. However, Liverpool council tax payers would have great concerns if they were being used to provide guarantees and carry risk via loans to such people. After all, the track record of Russian oligarchs is characterised by supreme indifference to those mug enough to allow them to exploit their gullibility. Remember too, that council tax payers across the whole city-region are also expected to indirectly subsidise infrastructure ancillary to the proposed stadium by way of Combined Authority grants. Self-evidently, such money spent on this mammoth project cannot be spent on the needs of the surrounding five boroughs.
I simply ask whether or not you would be prepared to put your trust in a Russian oligarch, particularly given the city council’s abysmal record in invigilating major projects? I certainly would not. A new stadium? By all means, but keep the council out of its financing.