Column: Chelsea's Abramovich, sugar dad with teeth

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By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press

Some billionaires build luxury yachts, some buy art, some donate to charity. Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich is said to do all those but collects the scalps of soccer managers, too.

And why not? Because if there is one thing the super-rich have in common, it is that their money allows them to do pretty much what they want, how they want, when they want. They don't have to settle for second best.

Andre Villas-Boas knew that when he agreed to work for Abramovich at Chelsea.

"I will be surprised to be kept on the job if I don't win," the man quickly dubbed "AVB" by the British media said when Chelsea hired him eight months ago.

The managerial contract Villas-Boas signed last June said three years, but the truth was that his tenure was only ever going to be as long as Abramovich's short patience.

So let's not go overboard with the crocodile tears over the sacking this weekend of AVB. Seven losses and seven draws in 27 Premier League games was never going to be good enough.

Villas-Boas either must or should have known he had this coming.

He looked drained and strained but tried to sound optimistic after what proved to be his final Chelsea game, a 1-0 loss to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.

"In football, there is joy, there is pain and there is another chance," he said.

Not this time.

His dismissal cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called a tragedy, not least because he is expected to be richly compensated for Abramovich's change of heart.

Nor, as the head of the English managers' union dramatically claimed, is it "a serious embarrassment to the owner, the club, the fans and the league" that Abramovich is now seeking his eighth manager in nine years of owning the club.

No, with sugar daddies, being able to chop and change just goes with the territory.

English soccer has been more than happy for wealthy benefactors from around the world to buy up its marquee clubs and, as Abramovich did at Chelsea, soak up their debts and use their rubles, Thai baht, dirhams and dollars to make them competitive again.

Chelsea fans didn't care where Abramovich's money came from. They celebrated their good fortune by wearing Russian fur hats.

But the other side to this coin is that Abramovich's estimated net worth of $13 billion means he can govern on a whim; his whim.

He doesn't have to be logical or reasonable.

Carlo Ancelotti, AVB's predecessor, delivered both the Premier League title and the FA Cup to Abramovich but then was let go after a subsequent season without trophies. That contract termination and the hiring of AVB cost Chelsea $45 million. In the real world, such an outlay makes no sense. But for a billionaire, clearly it doesn't have to.

Even before the benefit of hindsight, AVB seemed too young and inexperienced to have much hope of quickly imposing himself at Chelsea.

He was flavor of month when he took the job, because he had won three trophies in one season with Portuguese side Porto.

But, now 34, he was barely older than Chelsea's established stars, including John Terry, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Nicolas Anelka, the French striker he later got rid of.

All remain fine players, despite their advancing years. Chelsea was runner-up to English champion Manchester United last season. For a variety of reasons, Villas-Boas has not managed to get the team to perform for him.

"Each one of them was, or thinks that he is, the superstar of the team," another of Abramovich's former managers, Avram Grant, said of Chelsea's marquee players. "This is one of the main things in Chelsea — to know how to deal with these players."

The long-term plan, "my project" he dubbed it, was that AVB would gradually replace Chelsea's aging stars and give the club a younger future.

Short-term, however, he was still required to win. Abramovich seemingly wanted both continuity and revolution. As AVB's firing showed, most of all, he wants instant success.

"It's all about results," said Grant.

AVB couldn't deliver, at least not fast enough for Abramovich. Perhaps impatience is a privilege of billionaires, too.

Some would say that flitting from manager to manager is no way to run a team and that Abramovich's ambition, stated in 2005, "to build the most successful football club in the world" won't happen while he's so focused on immediate gratification.

But it's his club. He can do what he wants with it.

As Abramovich said in a rare interview with The Observer newspaper in 2006, money "cannot buy you happiness."

"Some independence, yes."

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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