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Sergey Galitsky: The billionaire behind the Krasnodar project as they take on Abramovich's Chelsea in Champions League

Sergey Galitsky: The billionaire behind the Krasnodar project as they take on Abramovich's Chelsea in Champions League
Krasnodar host Chelsea on Wednesday in what will be a proud new milestone for the Russian club, founded just 12 years ago but which under billionaire owner Sergey Galitsky have ambitions as grand as any other in the country.

When Chelsea take to the pitch at Krasnodar Stadium – an impressive 35,000-seater, Coliseum-style arena in southern Russia – they will be stepping into the house that Galitsky built.

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A retail magnate, Galitsky founded Krasnodar in 2008 and has bankrolled the club’s remarkable rise to what is now a debut season among the Champions League heavyweights.

That Krasnodar are playing on this grand stage so soon after their inception is testament to the 53-year-old Galitsky and his vision of turning this particular part of Russia into the nation’s footballing hotbed.

Indeed, if you want a glimpse into the future of Russian football, then Krasnodar – a city of just over 1 million people situated around 100km inland from the Black Sea coast – would be a good place to start.

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Set in a cultivated kaleidoscope of gardens and open spaces known by locals as Galitsky Park, the arena which hosts Chelsea’s assorted stars this week is just one small part of a much grander project.

Within sight of Krasnodar Stadium is the club’s academy, a $90-million, state-of-the-art facility where more than 300 youth team prospects live and study full-time, and 11,000 youngsters visiting from the region make use of more than two-dozen pitches.

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While Krasnodar did not host matches at the 2018 World Cup (that honor going to the Olympic resort of Sochi, 300km away), the club's academy was used by Spain as their base, and the facilities have been hailed as among the best in Europe.

For Galitsky, it is a football fantasy into which he is said to have ploughed upwards of $400 million to make a reality, including on the stadium where Frank Lampard's team will play as the first ever visitors for a Champions League group stage game. 

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But with an estimated wealth of $3.4 billion, Galitsky is a man who can afford it.

Born as Sergey Arutyunyan in Lazarevskoye, just along the coast from Sochi, he would later change his name on marrying, swapping his own originally Armenian surname for his wife's more Russian-sounding one.

After completing national service, Galitsky studied economics at Kuban State University in Krasnodar, later doing a stint in a bank.

But it was when he opened his first shop in the city in 1998 that Galitsky's business rise would truly begin.

From there, he went on to build a mammoth retail empire under his low-cost Magnit brand, which grew to become one of the largest private companies in Russia.  

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Bucking the trend of Russia's billionaires making their fortunes from the country's energy resources, Galitsky's was a concern which grew from the provinces, rather than the traditional power centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. From the outset, he was a businessman with a difference.  

He was also a man with a passion for football stemming from his youth – an interest he shared with an obsession for chess. Just as Galitsky's business interests grew, so did his ambitions to lay the foundations for something which would drag Russian football kicking and screaming into a new era. 

After selling the majority of his stake in Magnit in 2018, for which he netted $2.45 billion, his interest in the club he had founded a decade earlier became even more fervid. 

By that stage, Krasnodar were already a fully-fledged force in the Russian top tier, having ascended to the Premier League as early as the 2011-12 season, when they finished ninth. They have mounted title challenges in recent years, although their highest finish remains third.

While this season is their first in the giddy heights of the Champions League – a right they earned by beating Greeks PAOK in a two-legged playoff in September – their continental bow came in the Europa League in the 2014-15 season, and they have twice reached the last 16 in the competition.

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For Galitsky, Chelsea's visit this week is the latest proud milestone in a project with significant social aims as well as footballing ones. 

The impressive facilities at the Krasnodar academy are the envy of clubs in Russia, but the focus is not only on football. The prospects studying there have a wide-ranging education which nurtures them as people as well as players.   

“We are focused on the school,” Galitsky said in an interview in 2018.

“At the moment we want to make things so that they can be independent of me. Everything that’s happening there must have the possibility to develop. It has to have a foundation independent of what happens in my life. We are forming a financial basis.

“We invest a lot in the school, in modern opportunities, so that children grow up not only as athletes, but also as well-educated people.” 

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Galitsky’s devotion to developing the team – and the region – have made him a revered figure among Krasnodar fans and city residents. More than just a billionaire with a plaything, he is a benefactor leaving a lasting legacy. 

“Sergey Nikolaevich [Galitsky] is a person fully immersed in football, he puts his whole soul, time and a huge amount of money into it,” Katerina Potapova, a journalist for Sport-Express and press-attaché for the regional football federation, told RT Sport.

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“This is a person with big ambitions in football, and I hope someday he will achieve them. He’s not only developing football, but also improving the infrastructure of our city, making it more attractive. Sergey Nikolaevich is popular, every local genuinely values his work and efforts. They really love him here.  

“He’s created an incredible academy, a strong team with its own philosophy and an incredible infrastructure. For any person in Krasnodar, Galitsky is the embodiment of football. And for the city itself as well.”

On the pitch, Galitsky’s dream is to one day field a starting XI exclusively of local talent, and he has placed his faith in Krasnodar-born manager Murad Musaev, 36, who graduated from coaching in the youth ranks.

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While the current team has a substantial core of foreign players (the likes of French former Newcastle midfielder Remy Cabella may be familiar to Chelsea fans, although he has likely been ruled out on Wednesday due to a Covid-19 infection), there are academy graduates who are first-team regulars.

Most prominent is 21-year-old goalkeeper Matvei Safonov, who was man of the match in the opening Champions League group stage draw with Rennes. Highly-rated teammates Daniil Utkin, 21, and Magomed-Shapi Suleymanov, 20, could also feature against Chelsea, not least because Krasnodar are facing an injury crisis among numerous regular starters. 

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Galitsky's vision is a world away from the likes of Anzhi Makhachkala, the infamous project backed by local oligarch Suleyman Kerimov which saw Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o arrive in the outer fringes of Russia at the start of the 2010s, only for the club to steadily sink almost without trace when Kerimov pulled the plug.

Constraints such as financial fair play rules and the limited revenues generated by the Russian league mean that Galitsky would struggle to lavish money on big-name players, and Cabella, acquired for €12 million from Saint-Etienne in 2019, remains their record signing. 

That pales in comparison with the kind of outlay that their opponents on Wednesday have sanctioned down the years, not least this summer when Roman Abramovich loosened the purse strings to allow Chelsea to bring in more than £230 million ($300 million) worth of new talent, including highly-rated German duo Timo Werner and Kai Havertz.   

Yet the fact is, Galitsky has shown no desire to splurge on expensive stars, and the foreigners who do come in have to fit the philosophy. The ultimate aim is to build from the bottom up, based on the youth foundations he has put in place. 

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Allied with that is an approach to football which is among the most forward-thinking in Russia. 'The Bulls', as Krasnodar are known, will not aim to beat Frank Lampard’s team by bullying them, but will instead apply an attack-minded style closer to the likes of Premier League rivals such as Manchester City or Liverpool. 

Galitsky has used his Twitter account less frequently in recent years to directly air his footballing opinions, but gave an insight into his thinking back in April of 2012 when he ripped into Chelsea during their Champions League semi-final first leg against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. 

"At the moment cowardly football's winning. Aren't Chelsea fans ashamed?" he wrote, referring to the defensive style which earned Chelsea a 1-0 win that night, and ultimately took them all the way to a shock Champions League title under Roberto Di Matteo.   

When asked about the comments in a later interview, Galitsky would add: "We don't come to look at a 'bus'. Leave the conversations to the coaches who come to your studio to tell you what a great tactical match it was.

"There were 10 people stood behind [the ball]... Despite the fact that the budget of the team is the same as their opponents. It's not right."

Regarding Jose Mourinho, Galitsky has said that "a coach with that kind of philosophy would not work with us," and he also refused to allow Krasnodar manager Musaev to do a coaching course under former Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri, explaining that "it wouldn't be right."   

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The visit of Chelsea this week will invite inevitable comparisons between Galitsky and Abramovich, that most famous of Russian oligarchs. 

Galitsky has previously said that the pair are not acquainted, and while it would be "interesting" to discuss football with his fellow billionaire, "it's not one of his aims in life."

Whether Galitsky likes it or not, there are evident similarities between the pair: both are football obsessives who have ploughed vast sums into making their dreams become reality; both, by and large, are publicity-shy; and both have a penchant for superyachts (in Galisky's case the $225 million, 104-meter 'Quantum Blue').  

Yet the contrasts are also stark. Abramovich’s conspicuous consumption has come in a foreign field, causing a lingering resentment among some in his homeland that his London spending spree is unpatriotic, siphoning money away from the energy-rich country which has furnished him with his vast wealth. 

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Abramovich also seems happy to delegate authority at Stamford Bridge, particularly to chairman Bruce Buck and transfer guru Marina Granovskaia. While not through choice, UK visa woes have also made the 54-year-old an absent owner in recent years, at least in the physical sense.   

In contrast, even though Galitsky has trusted lieutenants such as general director Vladimir Khashig and Serbian academy adviser Aleksandar Marjanovich, he appears to be as hands-on as owners come and his influence is all-encompassing. 

He is also unabashed in his desire to turn Krasnodar into a club which will do the region – and Russia – proud, almost as if it's a patriotic duty. 

“Galitsky has built everything completely from scratch, quite literally,” said local journalist Potapova when asked to compare the Krasnodar patron with Abramovich.

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“Even the academy, the stadium and the park were just fields a few years ago, and now there’s a wonderful corner of our country, created by the hands of one man.” 

Chelsea will step into that corner of Russia on Wednesday night, with Sergey Galitsky watching on from the stands.

And while Roman Abramovich will remain the most famous of Russian oligarchs in foreign lands, in his homeland it is Galitsky who is frequently held up as most respected of all businessmen for what he is doing for the nation's football, and for its future.  

By Liam Tyler

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