Swiss police catch a controversial owner, reports Graham Dunbar
A celebrated players’ agent and club owner currently sits in a prison cell awaiting trial on charges including fraudulent bankruptcy and abuse of trust. For added comedy value, he is a dead ringer for David Brent, one of his victims was the former president of Real Madrid, and his farcical extradition saga entertained even non-football fans throughout the summer. Of course, there is inevitable tragedy at the heart of the life and times of Marc Roger and that is the near-destruction of a proud club, Servette, 17 times the champions of Switzerland.
After more than a century continuously playing in the top division, the Geneva team were bankrupted, humiliated and pulled out of the league mid-season within a year of being taken over by Monsieur Roger, a boisterous and charismatic Frenchman whose portfolio of clients once included Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Christian Karembeu. Indeed, Claude Makelele – who reportedly lost a six-figure sum “invested” in Servette for him by Roger – is one of many creditors anxious to follow the action at the Geneva Palais de Justice next spring.
That one of Europe’s worst football finance collapses should have taken place in one of its historic banking centres – and just 20 minutes from UEFA headquarters in Nyon – is one of many rich ironies. That Roger was even able to buy into an over-stretched Servette club in February 2004, with a modest stake of 1.2 million Swiss francs (£500,000), is an indictment of Geneva. A fabulously wealthy city, its riches are founded on old money in “private banking” and the vast bureaucracy of the United Nations – both of which show no interest in supporting a football team, even one that left homely Stade des Charmilles for the industry-standard Stade de Genève four years ago.
Roger spotted a vulnerable club, playing in a UEFA five-star venue and finishing third in a ten-team Swiss Super League, and promised the prospect of regular Champions League football. To break the stranglehold of FC Basel and FC Zurich, he offloaded 17 players and brought in 21, including sundry Spaniards and South Americans whose presence seemed to owe much to Roger’s friendship with an agent, Santos Márquez, who had himself taken over a lower-division club in his native Spain.
At Servette, a chaotic summer of wheeler-dealing brought drubbings in the first three away matches and a 5-1 UEFA Cup pasting by Ujpest of Hungary. The wages stopped being paid in September 2004, despite former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz being lured into buying a 20 per cent stake. There followed a series of ever-more ludicrous rescue plans before the game was up in February 2005 with debts of 12.5m francs; Servette’s results were scrubbed from the records.
Roger was soon arrested and spent more than three months in prison before being released on bail of 300,000 francs with the condition of reporting to the authorities in Geneva every Monday. He never returned and, as a French citizen, was never going to be given back.
But Interpol became involved and when Roger was in Spain attending Champions League games last February he was seized at the request of the Geneva justice department. A comical court battle ensued to find a method of transport for extradition – a train through France being ruled out – in which Roger’s claims to have a fear of flying seemed as plausible as those of the old Guinness boss Ernest Saunders to suffer from Alzheimer’s.
As shipping routes to Holland and Italy were mooted, Roger was spirited out in a privately hired plane with full medical attendance and bundled back into his Swiss prison cell, as newspaper cartoons mocked Roger’s “most successful transfer ever”.
With ten months of total jail time served in Switzerland before he, and two others, come to trial, there is some doubt that Roger will serve longer, though creditors – including many former players – are curious to know if there is cash stashed away in Monaco.
Servette survived and are run on admirably sensible lines by a Spanish owner, Francisco Viñas, though a recent trip by a delegation to Japan could lead to a restructuring of the club very soon. For the few remaining fans, sentenced to watch a team labour one place above relegation from the second division, the punishment continues.
From WSC 250 December 2007