Terrorised players, unhappy shareholders, sacked staff, striking supporters and poor results on the field: FC Neuchâtel Xamax football club’s tragi-drama continues.
Chechen businessman Bulat Chagaev has owned the club for just three months but during that time his management style has ruffled more than a few feathers. The Swiss-based oligarch says he is misunderstood and shocked by the welcome he has received.
The mood seems to have changed recently since the little-known Chechen saviour, who lives near Lausanne, took over the debt-ridden club on May 12 promising to take the struggling Swiss first division side into the Uefa Champions League.
Monday night’s extraordinary general meeting to change the club statutes to allow a non-Swiss executive board was a heated affair with a room full of minority shareholders voicing their discontent at the way the club was being run.
“It’s unacceptable, shameful, a dictatorship!” shouted an elderly fan.
Since the Chechen businessman holds a majority of the shares, the revolt made no difference to his plans.
Chagaev, absent “for family reasons”, was named chairman of the club by the meeting, and his associate Islam Satujev vice-chairman. Opponents whistled and booed.
Press reports have been increasingly critical of Chagaev’s hands-on management style.
The French-language Le Matin and L’Express/Impartial newspapers reported that the oligarch had stormed into the dressing rooms with armed bodyguards after Saturday’s 2-2 home draw against bottom-of-the league FC Lausanne Sport to criticise several of the players and coach Joaquin Caparros.
“This is the kind of scene we are starting to get used to,” said one player. Blick newspaper later downplayed the incident.
During half-time at the Swiss Cup Final on May 29 Chagaev is reported to have made a similar intrusion into the dressing room as Xamax trailed FC Sion 0-2, shouting “I’ll kill you all” to motivate his players.
After the cup defeat he fired former FC Zurich coach Bernard Challandes, who had replaced Didier Olle-Nicolle, sacked the day after Chagaev took charge of the club.
Following the team’s second straight defeat of the new season he dismissed Xamax’s sporting director, former Barcelona and Brazil striker Sonny Anderson, his coaching staff and three first team players.
On August 23 Xamax’s newly appointed chairman Andrei Rudakov was the next to receive his marching orders. Sponsors and fans have also started to desert the club.
In an interview with the French-language weekly magazine Illustré earlier this month, the mysterious entrepreneur said he was upset by the reception he had received and had considered throwing in the towel.
“People came to get me to take over a struggling club and now everyone treats me like a thief and criminal... When I arrived I met everyone. I explained my vision for the future and asked for total commitment from everyone... those who stuck to that are still here, too bad for the rest.”
On Monday he reportedly declared he would be ready to give the club free to the city of Neuchâtel if media attacks against him continued.
Nicolas Willemin, editor-in-chief at the Neuchâtel-based L’Express/Impartial, said initially locals had been ready to give the ambitious Chechen a chance but the situation seemed to have changed.
“At the end of the Bernasconi era [former president 2005-2011], there was quite a bit of incompetence and lots of criticism, so the idea of cleaning up the situation was well viewed, but Chagaev has done too much cleaning and now raised lots of questions,” he told swissinfo.ch, adding that the recent incident with the bodyguards had “messed up everything”.
He felt the owner was “extremely naïve” and had little cultural awareness of how people behave in Switzerland.
Brutal face of football
Neuchâtel’s local authorities are especially concerned by the turn of events.
“What we are seeing today is perhaps the most basic brutal face of professional football – where money is the master,” Neuchâtel Finance Minister Jean Studer told public radio on Tuesday.
“I’m worried for the future of the club,” Philippe Gnaegi, head of the canton’s education, culture and sport department, told swissinfo.ch. “We have to do everything possible to bring back some calm and serenity.”
But observers say they can do very little and if Chagaev pulls out the city authorities are unlikely to take over Xamax’s estimated SFr15-20 million of debt and have little leverage apart from being owner of the grounds.
“I don’t think Chagaev will stay,” said Willemin. “So what happens? Either there is a new buyer – maybe. The most probable [outcome] is bankruptcy or Xamax merges with the best local team, FC Serrières [group two of the Swiss third division].”
Raffaele Poli, a football expert at the International Centre for the Study of Sport (CIES) at Neuchâtel University, was equally gloomy.
“I think the club and the supporters were naïve but they dreamed of greatness; maybe Chagaev also believed it was easy to buy success.”
The wealthy new owner is said to be an avid football fan. He is a former vice chairman of Chechen league club Terek Grozny.
In January 2011 he hired Dutch footballer Ruud Gullit as manager but fired him five months later.
He first moved to Zug in 1987, later residing in Geneva. Since 1991 he has been a resident of St Sulpice on Lake Geneva, west of Lausanne, but much of his business background remains shrouded in mystery.
He owns two Geneva-based firms, Dagmara Trading and Envergure Holding, which reportedly oversee his oil and gas trading, real estate and construction empire. But he refuses to reveal the size of his fortune.
In an interview with Swiss national television he declared, “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 is close to the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, chairman of Terek Grozny and accused by non-governmental organisations of human rights abuses.
“He is like a brother,” he told the TSR news programme.
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 was chairman and owner of the club from June 2005 to May 2011. Over the past few seasons it is thought he helped cover the club’s annual debts.
The team are currently second from bottom in the 10-team Swiss Super League after seven games.