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Hybrid Warfare: Russian billionaire owns the most popular football club in Plovdiv

What would make a Russian billionaire interested in a Bulgarian football club on the verge of bankruptcy? Especially if its ownership is divided between the fans and a bankrupt company.

That's probably what some of the supporters of Plovdiv's Botev team, which went through various phases of survival after its former majority owner Tsvetan Vassilev fled to Serbia in 2014, are asking.

The club is currently in a state of financial collapse, but the situation nevertheless gives hope to the fans. Firstly, because the renovation of the club's stadium Hristo Botev has resumed. And secondly, because of the arrival of Russian businessman Anton Zingarevich in Bulgaria. He came at the beginning of December 2020, and started negotiations for the purchase of the team.

So far, it seems unclear what exactly prompted Zingarevich's interest in Botev, but the sudden drive to reconstruct the stadium with state money certainly played its part. Although municipal, the facility is the team's only enticing asset, inasmuch as the municipality has pledged to make it available for use once the renovation is complete.

Who is Anton Zingarevich?

Anton Zingarevic is 39 years old. In the Bulgarian media he is presented as a "Russian billionaire". Information about his own activities is contradictory and incomplete, but his father and uncle can certainly be said to be billionaires.

Anton is the son of Boris Zingarevich, who, according to the Russian edition of Forbes, has a fortune of $1.2 billion and in 2020 ranks as the 78th richest person in Russia. Boris runs a business together with his twin brother Mikhail. They both studied in St. Petersburg and started their careers there. "The "golden goose" in their business is Ilim Group, which deals in pulp and paper. In the early 1990s, the brothers' legal advisor was Dmitry Medvedev, who later became prime minister and president of Russia.

Anton Zingarevich is known not so much for his business success as for the problems he created for his father and uncle. His two publicly known ventures both ended in failure - the acquisition of the English football team Reading and of Energostroyinvest Holding (ESIH). In the first case, Zingarevich left millions in debt, and in the second he even had to flee from the authorities after being accused of embezzlement.

The ESIH affair

In 2012. Anton surprisingly bought ESIH, which performs a number of state contracts for construction in the energy sector. According to Russian media, the purchase was worth $70 million.

In 2016, however, Zingarevich was accused of having diverted 2.5 billion rubles (nearly $100 million) from MTS and Globex banks. Zingarevich's energy companies applied for loans but, according to the indictment, used false documents, the money was diverted, and ESIH was eventually declared bankrupt.

During the trial, prosecutors alleged that ESIH's general director Konstantin Shishkin and owner Anton Zingarevich took the money abroad and used some of it to buy the Moscow hockey team Atlant. Shishkin was sentenced to four years and Zingarevich was declared wanted. In 2019, there was a retrial, prosecutors surprisingly dropped their charges, and the case was dismissed.

The Redding affair

Anton and Katja Zingarevich in the stands at Reading in 2012.

In 2012. Anton is 30 years old and surprises the UK media by posing as the new owner of 51% of Reading Football Club. At the time, Reading was in the Premier League. The announced price of the deal is 25 million pounds.

Zingarevich is often in the stands, accompanied by his wife Ekaterina Domankova, a former Victoria's Secret model from Belarus. In England, he feels at home because he has completed both secondary and higher education there.

At the end of the season, however, Reading were relegated from the Premier League, Zingarevich began to have funding difficulties and in 2014 sold his share for £1 to an Indian billionaire, who also took on the accumulated debts of £38 million. According to British media, father Boris often helped cover some of the team's expenses.

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