VILNIUS - The Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich has become world famous ever since he purchased English Premier League side Chelsea two years ago. And now a Russian-Lithuanian business tycoon is looking to buy his way into the rather less lucrative Scottish Premier League.
Vladimir Romanov, who already owns Lithuanian Premier League leaders Kaunas and a team in Belarus, is on the verge of buying a 19.6 percent share in the Scottish club Hearts for 4.3 million litas (1.2 million euros). If the deal goes through, Romanov is expected to target the other main shareholders in order to gain total control of the club, which is struggling with debts of around 100 million litas.
But the takeover plans have been met with a mixed reaction in Scotland. Although the 57-year-old Romanov's bid has been approved by the Scottish Foreign Office and MI5, the Scottish press is portraying him as something of a shady man of mystery.
Previous efforts to buy himself into three other Scottish clubs were unsuccessful for unknown reasons, and he is notoriously media shy, preferring to communicate with the press through his spokesman. In Lithuania, Romanov is best known for being a major shareholder in Ukio Bankas.
He is currently rumored to be residing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where his investment group recently made a 45 million litas acquisition of aluminium and banking companies. Romanov is also well known for his involvement in the Kaunas-based textile company Dirbtinis Pluostas, which went bankrupt in 2001 after its turnover suddenly slumped by 63 percent in one year. He is also said to number Russian President Vladimir Putin among his friends:
While some diehard Heart fans may have their reservations about Roma-nov's true intentions, others have welcomed him with open arms.
"The Scottish executive is happy and the Foreign Office has checked him out. He is bona fide. Vladimir owns Ukio bank - that's the fourth largest bank in Lithuania. And I, for one, am not going to look a gift horse in the mouth," Edinburgh's Deputy Lord Provost Steve Cardownie told The Edinburgh Evening News.
Romanov has signaled that the club will stay at its current stadium and has promised to clear the club's debts, as well as investing in new players. But it's unclear whether Romanov actually knows the first thing about soccer, or much less actually likes the game.
There are certainly some financial motives for his investment in the debt-ridden club. "One of the reasons we are attracted to Hearts is that it is in Edinburgh, which is a growing prospective financial center. This would be very good for the promotion of our bank," Romanov's spokesman Ser-gei Fedotovas, who is also the director of Ukio Bankas, told The Scotsman.
Romanov's investment could also provide a golden opportunity to improve the quality of Lithuanian players. Some of Lithuania's finest young soccer talents could be coached at Hearts, which recently qualified for the group stage of the UEFA Cup. It is also Romanov's intention to bring in Ukrainian Anatoly Byshovets as the club's sporting director. Byshovets, former manager of the CIS team that participated at the European Championship in 1992, has been working as a consultant for Romanov's Kaunas team this season. Of course, whether this can make Hearts quite as successful as Abramovich's Chelsea, only time will tell.