After a turbulent week for first division football side Neuchatel Xamax, Chechen billionaire Bulat Chagaev has officially taken over the reins of the struggling club.
swissinfo.ch went along to Thursday's shareholders’ meeting, which approved the sale to the little known entrepreneur with close ties to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, to find out more about the controversy that has shaken the club.
In the end the meeting at Neuchatel’s Maladière stadium lasted just 24 minutes and Xamax’s new owner was conspicuous by his absence.
It seemed that Chagaev was still in the Chechen capital Grozny, where the night before he had attended the inauguration of a new 30,000-seater stadium and an all-star game he had organised.
The gala match was between a team of the world’s greatest players, including Argentine icon Diego Maradona, former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler and ex-Portuguese player Luis Figo, and a side comprising Chechen and Russian players, and captained by none other than Kadyrov himself.
The stars were expected in Neuchatel for Thursday’s VIP cocktail party but it appears that Chagaev’s private jet had been unable to take off in time.
So no Diego in Neuchatel, contrary to speculation in the Swiss media that Maradona might have a future role in the club.
In the end Chagaev, who bought previous owner Sylvio Bernasconi's majority stake in the club, left it to his newly appointed chairman, Andrei Rudakov, a former Spartak Moscow and FC Fribourg player, to finalise the deal and answer questions.
The new owners didn’t take long to take their first decision. Coach Didier Olle-Nicolle, who oversaw a 4-1 home defeat against Thun on Wednesday evening, was replaced by former FC Zurich trainer Bernard Challandes.
Chagaev said last week that he wanted to win the Swiss championship next season and take part in the Champions League.
But Rudakov quickly lowered expectations.
"The first thing is that we have to stay in the Super League," he told reporters. "Today, it's about staying in the Super League and winning the Swiss Cup.”
But he insisted that the new owner still had big ambitions for the club to become the great Xamax of the 1980s, which saw it win the Swiss league in 1987 and 1988.
For that the budget had to increase, “just look at the budget of FC Basel”, he said, without outlining any figures.
Rudakov, however, brushed aside any criticisms of his boss: “Switzerland is a democratic country and those who want to express themselves can do so. We are focused on football.”
Swiss media and Neuchatel fans have questioned the deal, saying not enough is known about the origins of Chagaev's fortune.
In Switzerland the Chechen businessman owns two Geneva-based firms, which reportedly oversee his oil and gas trading, real estate and construction empire.
Chagaev admits to being close to the controversial Kadyrov, who is also president of Terek Grozny football club, and accused by non-governmental organisations of human rights abuses.
During Thursday’s meeting only one person, who owned three shares, publicly opposed the takeover, to which Bernasconi joked, “It’s like in Chechnya – three votes against is nothing.”
Michel Reymond, a life-long supporter who has held the shares for ten years, told swissinfo.ch he was surprised to be the only one publicly opposing the move at the meeting.
“Others think like I do but they don’t have the courage to stand up and say it. I think the presidency of the club should stay within the canton. And I’m a bit worried with everything you hear about Mr Chagaev. Xamax’s future looks dark,” he said.
Several local people have previously spoken out against the takeover by the Chechen billionaire. But the numbers are small; a demonstration organised by a Neuchatel University professor criticising the move and Chagaev’s ties to Kadyrov only gathered 50 opponents. The club immediately reacted by lodging a complaint for slander against the organiser.
Swiss senator Dick Marty also expressed his concern in Le Matin newspaper this week about “recent flows of money into Switzerland from dictators, Chechen, Uzbek or Kazakh”.
And what do the Swiss authorities think of the whole thing?
“Objectively it’s not a topic of discussion for the government,” Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter told national radio. “I have close emotional ties to the club as I played there as a boy. For the rest I don’t have an opinion; I trust those in charge.”
Other Neuchatel public figures seem to be echoing his words and the apparent desire to calm things down.
“I’m very happy that the club found a new owner but sad to see it lose its cantonal ties,” Xamax’s former president Gilbert Fachinetti commented. “I’m basically a positive man. I trust the new directors.”
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 chairman 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.
He first moved to Zug in 1987, later residing in Geneva. Since 1991 he has lived in 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.end of infobox
Neuchatel Xamax, which has an annual budget of SFr12 million ($13.56 million), 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, chairman and owner of the club since June 2005, announced during the current season that he was stepping down. Over the past few seasons it is thought he helped cover the club’s unknown annual debts.
The team are currently eighth in the 10-team Swiss Super League, with only goal difference separating them from St Gallen who are in the relegation playoff spot and three games to play.
They have, however, reached the Swiss Cup final, where they will face Sion on May 29. The prize is a Uefa Europa League play-off round place.
(translated from French by Simon Bradley), swissinfo.ch