Arsenal, the Oligarch and the UPL

He’s obviously finished the brandy. When club president Vadym Rabynovych handed over Ukrainian Premier League side Arsenal Kyiv to the city’s mayor, Leonid Chernovetskyi, in January 2009, rumour had it that a bottle of the good stuff came his way in return. Considering that Arsenal went on to barely scrape clear of the relegation zone, with no stadium or training facilities and barely enough players to jump-start a clapped-out old ZAZ, let alone a push for mid-table security, Chernovetskyi probably got the raw end of the deal.

But fast forward to July. At an Arsenal shareholders meeting, with no prior warning, Rabynovych sealed a sensational return to the club he previously owned from May 2007 after only seven months away. To understand why this is big news not just for Arsenal, but for Ukrainian football, consider the following.

Born in Kharkiv in 1953, Vadym Rabynovych, having failed to complete a university degree, took up a position at the city’s transport department. Thrown out four years later for unspecified ’immoral behaviour’, he then worked in the construction industry before being arrested in 1980 – and again in 1982 – for embezzlement of public funds. In February 1984 Rabynovych was sentenced to 14 years in a local labour camp.

No cage was going to hold him for long. Amidst the post-Soviet turmoil of the early 1990s, Rabynovych walked free from prison and, following a brief attempt to corner the Ukrainian market in imported Italian furniture, soon got his big break with the soon-to-be-infamous Nordex corporation.

When dealing with Nordex, always pay your bills on time. Money-laundering, drug trafficking and smuggling of nuclear material are just three of the charges laid at the company’s door by various intelligence agencies. In particular, Nordex has been fingered as the key supplier of Scud missile warheads to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And when asked directly about alleged links to organised crime, Rabynovych simply replied: ”I doubt whether Nordex is involved in anything disreputable, but it is not for me to contradict your intelligence”.

Despite the suspicions, the good times rolled. Insolent questions such as the above were very much the expection, and Rabynovych rapidly gained in wealth and influence. He began to build a media empire, and his political manoeuvrings became ever more overt. Here Rabynovych may finally have over-reached himself – whispers that he was financing the 1999 election campaign of Alexander Tkachenko unnerved the incumbent president Leonid Kuchma, and Rabynovych was summarily expelled from Ukraine for a period of five years.

Unfortunately for Rabynovych, the official grounds for his expulsion were hard to challenge. He could not deny a long-standing association with a gentleman named Leonid Wulf, under investigation in connection with contract killings in Kyiv, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk. However, Rabynovych soon shrugged off the controversy. Deals continued to be made, presidents rose and fell, and the cash just kept piling up. As the icing on a by-now-enormous cake, he received the medal of the Order of St. Prince Vladimir from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for ’merits in the revival of spirituality in Ukraine’.

Rabynovych’s prohibition on entering Ukraine was eventually lifted. And as a final – perhaps inevitable – step in his rehabilitation as an upstanding member of the community, he set his sights on owning a football team. Virtually bankrupt, the municipally-owned Arsenal Kyiv could do little to avoid selling up in May 2007. Ironically enough, the primary motivation for the sale was a suspicion by the city authorities that Arsenal had become a front for money-laundering, with some ominous question-marks over discrepancies between player contracts and actual wages received.

To give him his due, Rabynovych has always talked a good game. Earlier in his career, when discussing his prison spell, he propagated a self-image as a victim of Soviet political repression, even as a dissident. He also passionately argued the case for his questionable choices in company, pleading that: ”On one shoulder I have governments and competitors, on the other all kinds of bandits and criminals. I have to maintain relationships with both sides to stay in business and to stay alive, whether I like it or not”.

His stated plans for Arsenal were similarly eloquent. The team were to finally get their own stadium – and even a transfer budget. A new confidence began to radiate from a side which had previously spent its entire existence labouring, unseen and unloved, in the shadows of cross-town rivals Dynamo Kyiv. In the first full year of Rabinovych’s tenure Arsenal finished a highly-respectable sixth in the league, also reaching the quarter-finals of the Ukrainian Cup. In a moment of magnificent surrealism, they were linked with a move for antique Brazilian full-back Cafu.

So why the brandy-assisted transfer of ownership to Chernovetskyi? This represents the central point of contention for those doubtful of Rabynovych’s commitment to Arsenal. Nobody could claim that the new owner was in a better position to take the club forward. After appointing his 30 year-old son Stepan – a man with zero football experience – as the new Arsenal president, Chernovetskyi immediately began to hallucinate, seeing bizarre visions of a youth academy to rival the fabled set-up at Dynamo: ”We will collect boys from the streets. They will become new Peles for free, and we will create a new image for Ukraine for free”, he announced.

Introducing a note of sober realism into this golden utopia, he added: ”Of course, the rich people’s kids will also be able to train in the club. But they will have to pay for it”.

In fact, by discarding Arsenal Rabynovych was pursuing an opportunity to advance yet higher in the Ukrainian football hierarchy – to the very top. Along with FC Kharkiv owner Vitaly Danilov, he had been at the forefront of discussions to reform the country’s top division. And whilst Chernovetskyi, screws ever looser, released a CD of himself singing a selection of ‘heartbreaking’ 80s hits, Rabynovych was preparing his candidacy for the top job in the grand new order of things.

In April 2008, the sixteen top-flight sides in Ukraine had, in a conscious imitation of the English Premier League, voted to reconstitute themselves as sole shareholders of the Ukrainian Premier League (UPL). The clubs would set minimum capital requirements, oversee refereeing and – most importantly – equally split income from television and advertising rights. And after a year of wrangling, backstage politicking and 85 submissions for the post, March 2009 saw the battle for the presidency of what would undoubtedly represent the most powerful body in the history of football in Ukraine come down to two men.

In one corner, Thomas Kurt. A Swiss national who had previously served as general manager of the now-defunct G14 group, Kurt’s pre-eminent administrative qualities soon overcame questions of nationality. In the other, Vadym Rabynovych, oligarch of this parish. Although Rabynovych had already served as interim head of the nascent UPL, nobody seemed quite sure what to make of him – strong support in some quarters was balanced by declarations of antipathy from Oleksandr Yaroslavsky and Petro Dyminsky, presidents of Metalist Kharkiv and Karpaty Lviv respectively.

Unfortunately for both Kurt and Rabynovych, the fledgling UPL was soon engulfed in a crisis which forced the issue of the presidency firmly onto the backburner. The key issue of collective distribution of television revenues, never entirely settled, finally exploded into open warfare.

Four club owners, led by Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s Ihor Kolomoysky, refused to sign up to what they felt was a disenfranchising agreement intended to squeeze money from private enterprise, with Kolomoysky – who denied charges that his anti-social behaviour was connected with UEFA’s rejection of his city as a Euro 2012 host – insisting that: ”No way the UPL is going to get any air rights or advertising income from my team”.

Unfortunately for just about everyone concerned, Kolomoysky refused to compromise. In fact, he went further and filed a suit claiming that the UPL violated both Ukrainian law and UEFA regulations – effectively challenging the right of the body to exist. On July 7, in a remarkable turn of events, the court ruled in his favour and declared the UPL to be illegal, banning it from holding any further games and annulling the results of last season’s competition.

Amidst this ongoing fracas, both Kurt and Rabynovych withdrew their candidacies for the UPL presidency. Interestingly, Kolomoysky jumped on the withdrawal of the latter as another stick with which to beat the ailing organisation, proclaiming that he objected to the installation of Danilov as interim head honcho: ”I can’t accept him as the legitimate president because he was elected by the representatives of only eleven clubs. When Rabynovych withdrew, the election should have been stopped and rescheduled for a later date”.

In the meantime, the new Ukrainian season is once more underway, albeit shrouded in an impenetrable legal fog. The question of whether teams have the right to participate in European competition based in the results of an annulled season is one which has yet to be addressed, but it would be safe to assume that the lawyers – and Kolomoysky, whose Dnipro finished a single point off the European places – have the matter fully in hand. This one – possibly in stark contrast to the new season – is set to run and run.

And Rabynovych? The discussion on what it would mean for Ukrainian football to be run by such a controversial figure will have to be postponed. It is certainly worth noting that whilst his background is by any measure extraordinary, the eternal intersection between business, politics and crime in Ukraine mean that it is by no means unique. Tough questions will be there to be asked of anyone who eventually ascends the throne.

Back at Arsenal, they have their hands full. Rabynovych may be back, but the pattern has been established. He will jump as soon as he gets wind of something bigger – which in Ukrainian football would be practically anything. The club may have found another temporary home at newly-promoted Obolon Kyiv’s eponymous stadium, but an end to the wandering seems as far off as ever. In more than one way, the most telling comment on the stadium situation comes from Arsenal vice-president Viktor Golovko: ”This situation proves once again that Kyiv does not need Arsenal – and that Ukraine does not want football”.

Given the events of recent months, Ukraine might just get its wish.

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