Acting on impulse

The arrival of a Chechen billionaire has cause some strange developments at Swiss club Neuchatel Xamas, Paul Joyce investigates the new owner’s erratic influence

When Chechen billionaire Bulat Chagaev became the new owner of Neuchâtel Xamax in May, many supporters were optimistic. Swiss champions in 1987 and 1988, Xamax had struggled to stay in the Super League since promotion in 2007. Chagaev, who is also the main sponsor of Terek Grozny, promised to raise the club’s annual budget to CHF30 million (£23m). “We will quickly take on the most incredible challenges in Europe, starting with the Champions League,” he predicted.

Yet some local figures expressed concern. Chagaev has described Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, as being “like a brother” to him, despite international condemnation of the former warlord’s human rights record. Chagaev has also declined to reveal the origins of his vast wealth, reportedly acquired in part from oil and gas trading. “Dirty money? I don’t know what you mean,” Chagaev said. “When I go and buy shoes, no one asks me where my money comes from.” After Patrick Vincent, a professor at Neuchâtel University, asked the Swiss cantonal government to investigate Chagaev’s finances, Xamax silenced him with a lawsuit. “If you don’t have any money, you keep your mouth shut,” said outgoing club president Sylvio Bernasconi.

Chagaev’s autocratic leadership style first became apparent at the Swiss Cup final on May 29. With Xamax trailing FC Sion 2-0 after only six minutes, the new owner texted coach Bernard Challandes demanding that he substituted the goalkeeper. At half-time, Chagaev screamed at his players: “I will kill you all.” He later claimed that the scoreline, which remained at 2-0, had been fixed “by Xamax people for the benefit of internet gamblers”.

During the summer break, the club was completely overhauled. “Apart from the supporters, we want to change everything,” stated Andrei Rudakov, the new Xamax president. Long-standing sponsors such as Tissot were driven away for not matching the new image of the club. The Xamax crest was redesigned to incorporate Chechen national symbols. Chagaev even tried to rename the team Neuchâtel Xamax Wainach after the Vainakh peoples of the Caucasus, but the Swiss Football League (SFL) decreed that the application had been submitted too late to be implemented this season.

After most of Xamax’s administrative staff had been dismissed, organisation became so chaotic that tickets for the first home match of the season against FC Luzern were issued as handwritten scribbles on a notepad. Fans were also bemused to be entertained at half-time by Russian folk dances on the video screen and banners in Cyrillic script. The Xamax team hastily assembled by Sonny Anderson, Chagaev’s third coach in a month, lost the game 3-0. Debutant Brazilian goalkeeper Rodrigo Galatto was fired on the spot.

Yet Chagaev was merely warming up. After Xamax lost their next match to champions FC Basel, the owner sacked president Rudakov, his entire coaching staff and the club’s medical team. Anderson, he claimed, “smoked a cigarette every half-hour”, whereas trainer François Ciccolini “stood there motionless like Napoleon”. Once again, Chagaev saw himself as the victim of a conspiracy. He accused fitness coach Patrick Legain of intentionally injuring goalkeeper Logan Bailly by sending him on a 15km run, and alleged that one Xamax player had been ordered to injure another “so that Anderson could continue to pick the players that he wanted”. The dismissed staff are now suing Xamax for defamation of character.

Politicians have been vocal in their condemnation of Chagaev’s actions. Adrian Amstutz, vice-president of the SVP party, called the Xamax owner a “hooligan” and his Zürich colleague Toni Bortoluzzi branded him “a disgrace to football and Switzerland”. Yet although the SFL has admitted that they are keeping “a closer eye” on Xamax, they have chosen the conciliatory approach of offering Chagaev advice. “We have limitations as to what we can do and businesses go bankrupt every day,” said SFL director Edmond Isoz. “But we are not the police.”

Xamax fans are torn between being grateful to Chagaev for the injection of capital and being fearful of what would happen if he pulled out. “The soul of the club has been stolen,” observed Gilbert Facchinetti, Xamax’s honorary president. “We can only hope now that Chagaev keeps his commitments.”

In recent interviews, Chagaev has at times offered to give Xamax free of charge to any Swiss patriot willing to take it over, while insisting at others that he will stay to help Xamax win the Swiss League. “I have family here who wouldn’t understand if I gave up. I would even be accused of dishonouring Chechnya,” he remarked. What seems least likely of all is Chagaev recognising why his erratic behaviour has caused offence. “What have I done to deserve such treatment? Xamax was a poor decrepit woman whom nobody wanted and now that I’ve married her, everyone’s telling her that her husband is a bastard.”

From WSC 296 October 2011