"The fans, club and people of the city feel like a community. We want to build an organization that will bring this club to a whole new level," the good-looking blonde man says. It was April 2022 and this was the first and only time Anton ZIngarevich gave a TV interview in Bulgaria. A month later, PFC Botev finished third in his first season as owner. The euphoria surrounding him grew: a foreign investor, a new stadium close to completion and upcoming participation in European tournaments. What could ever go wrong?
A year later the euphoria is gone. Botev flopped in the European tournaments, the domestic season has been a disaster (one place above relegation) and the club's doors are almost falling off their hinges as they open and close for incoming and outgoing players, coaches, managers and personnel.
The organization and order promised by Zingarevich is nowhere in sight - over the past 18 months the club has changed its CEO 3 times, its sports director once, its head coach a shocking 4 times and there was even a possibility that it would change its owner. But, in the end, the one to go was the primary sponsor of the club and builder of its stadium - construction company PIMK.
On paper this is nothing new in the sports world. Teams often experience a big turnover of staff. Yet two things stand out in the Botev case. First, the team was gifted a taxpayer-financed renovation of their stadium worth almost 30 million euros, while its finances are practically a black box - and appear to be disappearing at an alarming speed. And secondly, the mysterious figure of the owner himself.
His father's son
Anton Zingarevich is the son of one of the most famous Russian billionaires, Boris Zingarevich,
who is an ex-business partner to ex-president Dimitriy Medvedev. According to the Russian edition of Forbes, Zingarevich-Sr has amassed a fortune of 1.2 billion dollars, mainly due to his Illim group - producer of cellulose and paper. Partners in Illim up to this week were the American giant International Paper, who sold their share. The Zingarevichs' center of operations is reported to be in Saint Petersburg.
It is difficult to estimate Anton's actual net worth. According to sources that have followed his career since his rise in Russia, as well as articles in western media, his finances are tightly linked to his father's fortune and not of his own making.
Like many other oligarchs' sons, Zingarevich-Jr graduated in 2003 in the UK from Bearwood College and Cass Business School, where he studied sports management and investment. For his first professional experience he went to the US, where he was the VP of operations for the producer of lithium batteries for EVs Ener1. Boris ZIngarevich is a shareholder in the company. Ener1 received 118 mln dollars funding from the government of Barack Obama, but shortly afterwards it filed for bankruptcy. The reason - low demand for the product at the time.
From 2012 onwards Anton Zingarevich has been part of Z1 Group, the family investment company in Moscow. According to his profile in LinkedIn he is acting chief investment officer.
During the same year he completed two of his biggest deals. The first was the purchase of the Russian Энергостройинвест-холдинг (ESIH), which does construction and energy projects issued by the government. According to different media publications, the total sum paid for the acquisition was 70 mln dollars.
The second deal and his first in the sports world and management, which looks to be his real passion, was the purchase of a controlling stake of 51% in Reading FC through his Thames Sport investment - a deal estimated at GBP 25 mln.
The British adventure
His entry into Reading, similar to the early days in Botev, was triumphant - Zingarevich became owner in the second part of the successful 2011-2012 season, which saw the team promoted to the Premier League. Yet Reading's following season was a disaster. Relegation, debt and mismanagement destabilized the club for years to come. According to a publication on Reading's fan site the main cause was an inadequate transfer policy as well as a lack of investment. A two-and-a-half year period dubbed by fans as "a disaster, which changed the club for the worse".
An Al Jazeera investigation of the financial consultant Christopher Samuelson found out he was helping the young Anton who received a donation from his father for the purchase, but lacked the income to further develop the club.
In the end, Anton left the club with a selling price of GBP 1 and a debt of GBP 38 mln. This wasn't the end of the young Zingarevich's love for sport. While he was selling Reading FC, talks got underway to buy 75% of Moscow ice hockey club Atlant.
A slip in the snow
To this day it is unclear how Anton acquired the funds to buy Atlant. Some suggest the GBP 38 mln debt of Reading FC is where the money came from. Regardless, the deal was finalized in 2013, whereby the Moscow municipality agreed to take up 25% of the expenses. "My goal is personal - to build a system from the youth to the club, like a pyramid, which gives results, the young businessman told local Soviet Sport media - words strangely similar to what he'd tell Bulgarian media a decade later.
In 2015 Atlant was unable to cover its expenditures and was ousted from the professional league. Russian sports journalist Dimitriy Derunetz noted that "the main reason for this failure is Zingarevich's inability to help the club".
The net then started closing on the young heir to a billion dollar empire. In 2016 the Moscow prosecutor's office started an investigation into Zingarevich and ESIH's director Konstantin Shishkin over financial fraud for borrowing 1 billion rubles from the MTS Bank in 2013. Funds were never used as intended, it was alleged. According to an investigation by Russia's Kommersant, some of these funds found their way into Atlant for a brief period before disappearing into foreign accounts for the purchase of foreign companies. Apparently, other funds were used to pay off a personal loan from Zingarevich junior to a bank in Saint Petersburg. During this time ESIH was in liquidation.
A month later Anton was declared a wanted man by the Russian government, but he was already in the US by then where he resided until 2019. At this point the Moscow court returned the case to the prosecutor's office due to violations in it and a month later it was officially terminated. As for Shishkin - his sentence was overturned and he was freed after just 6 months.
The Moscow Post presented another version regarding the termination of the case against Anton Zingarevich according to which the son could be used as leverage against his father and uncle's business empire.
Thus Zingarevich departed the hockey scene but remained in the football one. And came to Bulgaria.
Read part II of the story next week.