Alisher Usmanov: Stadium move cost Arsene Wenger ‘best years of career’

CNN  — 

Arsene Wenger lost arguably the best “10 years of his career” when Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium in 2006, says the club’s second biggest shareholder.

Outspoken Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov is in no doubt that the strain on the English Premier League team’s finances greatly weakened the abilities of the French coach.

The Uzbek-born businessman – ranked by Forbes as the world’s 71st richest man – says the Arsenal board members’ inability to finance the new stadium from their own pockets had far-reaching repercussions for a decade.

“Arsene had a very, very difficult position when club shareholders didn’t want to put their money into constructing the new stadium,” Usmanov told CNN.

“Because of this, he (went) five years – maybe the best of his career – without a trophy. Ten years, in reality.”

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Usmanov: Wenger's best years lost
03:27 - Source: CNN

For the record, it was nine – as Arsenal’s 2014 FA Cup success gave the Gunners their first silverware since winning the same competition in 2005.

That 2005 trophy was one of three FA Cups and two Premier League titles that Arsenal won in its final six years at Highbury, its old home, a spell that also included a maiden appearance in the 2006 Champions League final.

Weeks later, with Wenger then aged 56, Arsenal moved into the Emirates where the Gunners seemed to stagnate – winning precisely nothing in the next six years.

Despite having spent around $300 million on just over 30% of the club since first buying Arsenal shares in 2007, Usmanov was powerless to help.

“Unfortunately, I have no control in this club,” lamented Russia’s third richest man. “But in any case, I’m very happy to be here. Maybe for the very, very long-term.”

Usmanov may have wealth that greatly exceeds that of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich but he does not even sit on the Arsenal board.

He has a near non-existent relationship with Stan Kroenke, the American owner of the St Louis Rams NFL franchise and the only man in the world to hold more Arsenal shares than him.

Over the years, the two have rarely spoken.

Usmanov, who initially made money through selling plastic bags, now has far-reaching interests in several sectors, including mining, steel, technology and media, but his vast wealth of $14 billion does not filter its way into Arsenal’s coffers.

Nor does Kroenke’s $6 billion, with the American preferring a self-financing policy that Usmanov says has cost Arsenal millions of dollars.

As he laid out in an open letter to the board three years ago, greater investment in the team increases the chance of winning trophies, the arrival of which would enable the club to charge higher prices for both sponsorship and commercial contracts.

Wenger has always been an advocate of clubs operating within their means, but arguably Arsenal’s business model has come at a big cost for its supporters – the club’s season ticket prices are the most expensive in the Premier League, costing between $1,612 and $3,176.

If Kroenke and Usmanov don’t talk, they do see eye-to-eye in their respect for Wenger.

“If I had the right, I would keep Arsene until he wants because until he cannot perform his activity as a manager, it is a gift for any club to have a coach like Arsene Wenger,” said Usmanov.

The 61-year-old is also far more buoyant about the direction Arsenal is headed in, believing the club can not only fight for the Premier League title but the Champions League too.

This follows the arrival of major stars like Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech in the last two years.

“If there aren’t (any) severe injuries, he’s got a great chance to compete with teams like Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City,” he rallied.

“The championship will be decided between these four teams.”

“With the team that Arsene has put together, except for one position, I think it’s a club that’s ready to successfully fight for European Cups.”

The frustration for Usmanov is that he cannot help the club until he engages with Kroenke, yet meaningful conversation between the pair has been as elusive as recent Premier League titles in North London.

For a man who was the three-time fencing champion of Uzbekistan and who heads up the International Fencing Federation, Usmanov should be adept at sparring – but he has consistently failed to penetrate Kroenke’s defenses.

Nonetheless, he was diplomatic when CNN asked if it’s frustrating that the controlling shareholders at Arsenal do not tap into riches that Usmanov has often been known to give away.

In 2013, for example, one British newspaper reported that Usmanov had donated $175 million to worthy causes.

And he would love to see similar largesse from those on the Arsenal board, who have defended their position in the past.

“I think those people have money as well. It’s just their choice – everyone can do what he’s allowed to do in accordance with his status,” he said.

“I wish success to the person who has taken responsibility for the future of a team like Arsenal (Kroenke.) He’s a professional and has got great experience in sports – his success is my success.”

With $20 billion of assets between them, you might think Kroenke and Usmanov could find a way to work together – yet this is a Russian-American relationship that has all the frostiness of the Cold War.

Nonetheless, this is not going to deter Usmanov, a man whose bank balance outstrips the Premier League’s much-vaunted TV rights deal, from hoping to have the controlling share in future.

“Everything is in the hands of God – we will see.”

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