Chechen entrepreneur Bulat Chagaev is set to take over as the new owner of struggling Swiss first division football club Neuchâtel Xamax.
Chagaev, an associate of ex-Chechen warlord and current President Ramzan Kadyrov, has promised to take the debt-ridden Swiss side, currently third from bottom of the league, into the Uefa Champions League.
"Neuchatel Xamax is happy to announce the takeover of the famous club by the businessman Bulat Chagaev," the twice Swiss champions said in a statement on Thursday.
The value of the deal, whereby Chagaev buys Sylvio Bernasconi’s majority stake in the club, remains a secret, however. The news was revealed ahead of official ratification by the club’s general assembly on May 12.
"I'm very happy to lead Neuchatel onto the path of national victory," said Chagaev.
"With a motivated and well-prepared team, we will quickly take on the most incredible challenges in Europe, starting with the Champions League."
Chagaev has named former Spartak Moscow and FC Fribourg player Andreï Rudakov, 50, as Xamax president. Rudakov is acting as Chagaev’s go-between at the club as Chagaev speaks neither French nor English.
The wealthy new owner is said to be an avid football fan. He used to play for Chechen league club Terek Grozny in the 1980s; he remains their vice president and since December 2010 his firm has been their chief sponsor.
In January 2011 he hired Dutch footballer Ruud Gullit as manager but the club remains a lowly 11th in the Sogaz Russian Championship.
The discrete Chechen businessman has cultivated contacts with Switzerland over the past decade. He first moved to Zug in 1987, later residing in Geneva. Since 1991 he has been living in the village of St Sulpice on Lake Geneva, west of Lausanne, but much of his business background remains shrouded in mystery.
In Switzerland he owns two Geneva-based firms, Dagmara Trading and Envergure Holding, which reportedly oversee his oil and gas trading, real estate and construction empire.
In an interview on Thursday with Swiss national television, Chagaev refused to reveal the size of his fortune, “I don’t know as I never count my money, nor that of others”. He is reportedly worth several billion Swiss francs.
Asked whether his investment was simply a form of money-laundering he replied: “I don’t know what clean or dirty money is. Money has no family name or country – it’s just money.”
He also confirmed he was close to controversial Chechen President Kadyrov, president of Terek Grozny and accused by non-governmental organisations of human rights abuses.
“He is like a brother,” he told the TSR news programme.
Reactions to the news among Xamax fans have been mixed.
“It’s not the best solution but we really didn’t have much choice,” local fan Jean Robert told swissinfo.ch, adding that he had questions over Chagaev.
“On the one hand I’m happy that someone is taking over the reins after Sylvio Bernasconi resigned,” Walter Gagg, an honorary Xamax member and Fifa director, told Neuchâtel’s L’Express newspaper.
“The money is good but you need competence. For the moment this is not always the case with Xamax, particularly at the technical level and regarding transfers.”
Xamax’s former president Gilbert Fachinetti was more positive: “The arrival of this investor is the only solution. Whether it be Chechens or Germans doesn’t change anything. The main thing is that the club survives.”
But an editorial in Friday’s edition of L’Express said the current owner was taking a “huge risk” and questioned the success rate of takeovers by foreign owners.
“In Switzerland attempted takeovers by foreign investors have all failed miserably: whether it be Marc Roger at FC Servette, Waldemar Kita at FC Lausanne Sport, Gilbert Kadji at FC Sion, Alain Pedretti at Xamax or Antonio Tacconi at FC La Chaux-de-Fonds,” it wrote.
Neuchâtel’s finance minister, Jean Studer, also had his doubts: “Neuchâtel Xamax has a long local history and with this purchase by foreign investors, I share the concerns of many Neuchâtel people. The canton is perhaps too small and cannot count on its own resources when it wants to compete in the top flight.”
Edmond Isoz, director of the Swiss Football League, described the decision as “risky” but said Chagaev’s actions shouldn’t be prejudged.
“He owns companies in Switzerland and in theory respects the laws of this country,” he told swissinfo.ch. “Obviously his relations with the Chechen president may pose problems. But the league is here to deal with the management of the championship and not give political opinions.”
Alain Bovard, spokesman for Amnesty International, declined to comment on the football deal itself, but added that “we can only confirm that he is mixing in bad company”.
Neuchâtel Xamax were formed in 1970 by the merger of two clubs and the team have won the Swiss league twice, in 1987 and 1988.
Sylvio Bernasconi, who has been president and owner of the club since June 2005, announced during the current season that he intended to step down. Over the past few seasons it is thought he helped cover the club’s unknown annual debts.
The team, eighth in the 10-team Swiss Super League, are still involved in the fight against relegation this season.
They are only four points clear of bottom club St Gallen with five games to play and two clear of Bellinzona, who are in the relegation playoff spot.
They have, however, reached the Swiss Cup final, where they will face Sion on May 29.end of infobox
(with input from Samuel Jaberg), swissinfo.ch