Putin-linked tycoon tapped to build hockey giant

25th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

A billionaire acquaintance of Vladimir Putin who was asked to run a lowly ice hockey club in the premier's native city said Tuesday he intended to use his state ties to build a world-beating side.

The secretive energy trader, Gennady Timchenko, revealed in a rare interview that he was invited to serve as president of the Saint Petersburg SKA army club by the boss of Gazprom -- the natural gas sponsor of the KHL championship.

Timchenko told the Sport Express daily he accepted the offer at the start of the season because the team "has not won anything for decades".

A quick turnaround would make SKA into a second Saint Petersburg success story after Gazprom took the struggling Zenit football club and transformed it into a European powerhouse with a fan base of Putin and Russia's ruling elite.

It would also mark another chapter of the modern Russian state using its ties to big business -- whose wealth in large part depends on the Kremlin's good favour -- to finance the development of glory projects in sports.

Russian oligarchs have already been tapped to help build venues for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, while Putin himself once asked Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich to "crack open his wallet" and pay for a part of the 2018 World Cup.

The 59-year-old Gunvor energy trader Timchenko admitted that he took some time before agreeing to head SKA, which has never won a title since being formed in 1946.

He never disclosed a potential investment figure but said he would use his ties to the defence ministry and the ruling United Russia party to ensure the team had enough training facilities and hockey rinks.

"We are negotiating these issues with a number of (state) agencies, including the defence ministry," Timchenko said in one of his first major Russian-language interviews.

"We have already agreed with United Russia that during the first stage, we will build four new skating rinks for our kids in the city," he added.

An equally rare photo of the billionaire revealed a silver-haired man with a small smile on his stern face wearing the team's logo on the left breast pocket of his dark suit.

Timchenko was a relative unknown until his Cyprus-registered firm expanded under the 2000-2008 Putin presidency to become one of the world biggest private commodity traders.

Russia's Finans magazine has estimated his fortune for the start of 2011 at $8.9 billion (6.4 billion euros) -- more than double the previous year's figure.

Timchenko has vigorously denied suggestions that his fortune was in any way linked to his personal ties to Putin.

After contesting an article in court, he also forced The Economist in 2008 to publish a statement saying "we did not intend to suggest that either Gunvor or Mr Timchenko obtained their Russian oil business as a result of payment by them of bribes or like corrupt inducements."

Putin, a former KGB spy, for his part confirmed for the first time last month that he knew Timchenko from the days the two spent time building their careers in Saint Petersburg.

But he stressed that he never "stuck his nose" in Timchenko's business.

Timchenko was born into a military family in what was then Soviet Armenia and moved to East Germany at the age of six -- movements suggesting that Timchenko's family was also involved in espionage work.

Timchenko simply repeated on Monday that he was "from a military family" and had spent all his life rooting for army sports teams such as SKA.

© 2011 AFP

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