kiev, ukraine | Add another high-profile Jewish businessman from the former Soviet Union to the exclusive fraternity of soccer team owners.
Vadim Rabinovich, president of the Ukrainian Jewish Congress and a major donor to Jewish causes in Ukraine, joined the elite group when he purchased Kiev’s second premier club, Arsenal, for an undisclosed amount.
Members already were Grigory Surkis, president of the Ukrainian Football Federation and part owner of Dynamo Kiev, Ukraine’s leading soccer club, and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea squad in London.
In April, Kiev Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky indicated that Arsenal would be de-listed, or removed from the elite division of Ukrainian soccer, because its maintenance of $8 million a year was too financially draining.
That’s when Rabinovich, a media magnate and one of the leading figures in the Ukrainian Jewish community, stepped in. “A close friend called and asked if I wanted to purchase Arsenal, and I said yes,” Rabinovich said.
Rabinovich bought 97 percent of shares in the team.
His timing was impeccable. Ukraine recently was awarded the right to co-host Euro 2012, the second-biggest soccer tournament after the World Cup. Arsenal plays its home games at Kiev’s premiere Olympic Stadium, the venue for the Euro 2012 final.
Arsenal has mostly struggled since it was founded in 1934, especially compared with cross-town rival Dynamo. In the past three seasons, Arsenal finished no better than sixth in the 16-team Ukrainian Premier League.
Rabinovich hopes his investment can reverse the losing. He says he will bring in “better staff and better players.
“I have high hopes for Arsenal,” he said.
His early memories played a role in his decision to purchase Arsenal, Rabinovich said. “I played football when I was a child, and then later began concentrating on Jewish matters,” he said.
“Now I have bought a football club, but I will not be pushing aside my involvement in the Ukrainian Jewish community.”
It seems the purchase may even have boosted his reputation among Ukrainian Jews. “I have been president of the Ukrainian Jewish Congress and head of the Israel-Ukraine Committee for many years, but the first thanks I received, from Jewish and non-Jewish people in the street, was after I bought Arsenal,” Rabinovich said.
While the new owner, who holds Israeli citizenship and maintains homes in Israel and Ukraine, would love to see some Israeli players on Arsenal, he is leaving those decisions to his management.
“If there happens to be an Israeli player we like, we will take him on board,” he said.
If Arsenal finishes higher than sixth next season it would be a success. The top teams qualify to play in the European finals.
Rabinovich said the team is working hard to attract players from Europe and beyond. “This next year Arsenal Football Club will spend more money on club development than any other team” in the Ukrainian league, he promised. “If the club is to be successful, we have to invest some money.”
Saving the football club from certain collapse earned Rabinovich kudos from Arsenal fans and the greater Kiev community. “This is fantastic, this is great — I thought it was over,” said Anatoly Mezhov, a fanatical Arsenal supporter. “We are alive. Now we want to challenge Dynamo Kiev. Now we can. We will be unstoppable.”
The sentiment is echoed repeatedly by someone close to Rabinovich. “Every day I come home and my parrot is yelling, ‘Arsenal champions! Arsenal champions!’
“Who else should I listen to? I think the parrot is right.”