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Meet the president

Sion's mecurial chairman has been through 18 managers in five years – including himself. Paul Joyce examines the chaos

Christian Constantin’s two spells as president of Swiss team FC Sion have been nothing if not colourful. After taking charge of the side from the Valais region in 1992, the autocratic Constantin guided Sion to two league titles and three Swiss Cup victories in five years. Yet the 130 transfers that took place in this period left the club fatally overstretched. Constantin quit in 1997 after Sion failed to qualify for the Champions League, leaving debts of 13.4 million Swiss francs (then £5.5m). Unable to recover, Sion were demoted to the third tier in June 2003.

That the club then reappointed the man responsible for this chaos was a tribute to his fearsome litigiousness. In 1997, Constantin managed to force a UEFA Cup tie to be replayed by proving that Spartak Moscow’s crossbars were 8cm too low. So it was child’s play for him to take the Swiss League to court to demand that Sion be reinstated in the second division – which they were in October 2003, 12 games into the season. After his return, Sion became the first ­second-tier team to win the Swiss Cup, in 2006, and regained their top-flight status.

Constantin’s hiring and firing of coaches makes being a guitarist in The Fall seem like a secure career option: 18 managers have been dismissed since 2003. Nestor Clausen quit at half-time during a 2006 Swiss Cup match, fed up with having the line-up dictated to him by the president. His successor, Marco Schällibaum, lasted a mere 47 days.

So no one was unduly surprised when Uli Stielike was axed in November 2008 after only five months in charge. Constantin’s choice of replacement was more unexpected – himself. When Swiss officials insisted that he lacked the requisite UEFA pro licence, Constantin argued that this was unnecessary as Stielike was merely on sick leave: “I sent him home because he had turned up in a dishevelled state and was giving off an unpleasant smell.” For his part, Stielike declared himself unable to work in this “bizarre ambience” of presidential interference in team affairs.

A further barrier to Constantin’s new role as coach was the touchline ban imposed on him after an incident in Kriens in 2004, when he was accused of assaulting a referee and kicking a linesman in the testicles. Typically, however, Constantin had already managed to get this ban reduced to four months by threatening to sue the members of the Swiss FA’s disciplinary ­commission for SFr1m (£600,000) each.

Having decided he could do without a manager, Constantin then proceeded to dispense with the supporters. He had already come under fire from fans for suggesting that Sion should merge with other clubs from the French-speaking part of Switzerland to form an all-conquering “Olympique des Alpes”. Supporters also oppose his plans to relocate the club to a new stadium in ­Riddes by 2012. Whereas FC Sion used to bring through young Swiss talent such as Alain Geiger and Georges Bregy, fans now find it hard to identify with an ever-­changing squad of unmotivated imports.

Matters came to a head in November, after goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary was booed by a section of the home support. Constantin announced the immediate closure of the north stand of the club’s Tourbillon stadium, which houses up to 5,000. The Sion ultras could move to the south stand next to the away end, Constantin argued: “If our fans want to join forces with the opposition, then they’ll be in the right place.”

Although Constantin was forced to withdraw this threat due to security concerns, three Sion fan groups withheld their support for two pre-Christmas home matches and issued a communiqué declaring that “the future of the club must be without Constantin if we wish to preserve its identity and values”. But this is easier said than done. Local sponsors are unwilling to criticise the well connected Constantin, whose firm of architects earns SFr270m per year. Nor can they match Constantin’s annual investment into the club of SFr2m, and the dire consequences of his first departure are still fresh in people’s minds. “If I give up, the club will soon find itself back in the third division,” he warned in December.   

Predictably, Constantin fired himself as coach two days before Christmas and reappointed Umberto Barberis, whom he previously dismissed 14 years ago after 15 months in charge. He will be lucky to last half that long this time.

From WSC 264 February 2009

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