For several years, the francophone Swiss press has had to rely on the endless controversies stirred up by madcap FC Sion president, Christian Constantin, for its headlines, whilst the Swiss Romande region’s other main clubs, Servette (of Geneva) and Lausanne Sport languished in the second division recovering from financial meltdowns. Thankfully for the footballing public, this increasingly tedious situation was brought to an end over the summer with the promotion of Servette and Lausanne. But the best news of all for the headline writers, was the takeover of the region’s other top flight club, the previously unobtrusive Neuchâtel Xamax, by a Chechen businessman, Bulat Chagaev.
Since his arrival in May, Chagaev has made the Constantin approach to running a football club, which sometimes involves hanging on to the same coach for several months, appear to be a model of cool judgement. Chagaev is already on his fifth coach in five months. The first two, Didier Ollé-Nicole and respected former ex-Swiss under-21’s boss, Bernard Challandes were gone within Chagaev’s first month at the helm. With great fanfare, the next man through the door was the former Barcelona and Olympique Lyon striker, Sonny Anderson. Anderson was billed as having the celebrity required to attract the higher profile players on whom Chagaev was itching to spend his money. But a summer recruitment programme that featured more embarrassing rebuffs than exciting arrivals led to public rows between the coach and his chairman, and when the first two games of the season were lost, out went Anderson.
Either way, the fear of Xamaxiens is that Chagaev will leave the club on the hook for millions in debts and unaffordable playing contract
Now, after thirty-nine days in the job, Anderson’s successor, Joaquin Caparros has become the latest Xamax coach to be fired. His departure followed an
incident that threatened to bring a grisly new meaning to the phrase “trigger-happy chairman”. At half-time in the game against Lausanne on 27th August, an enraged Chagaev and his armed bodyguard burst into the dressing room to berate the Xamax players for their lack of effort. This provoked an altercation with Caparros, who was indignant about the intrusion and, inevitably, sacked a few days later. Chagaev has since tried, and failed, to allay concerns by arguing that his gun-toting accomplice was actually only his chauffeur and that weapons possession is normal in Switzerland (which it sort of is, in that military reservists are often required to store their guns in a secure cupboard at home, though they are not generally encouraged to brandish them around football stadiums).
Apart from scattering managers like confetti, Chagaev has dispensed with numerous other backroom staff and his initial choice of club president, Andrei Rudakov. He has also been embroiled in a series of spats with Neuchâtel city council, the owners of Xamax’s La Maladière stadium, including rows about the replacement of the artificial pitch and the alleged non-payment of Swiss Francs (CHF) 200,000 in rent. Just to complete Chagaev’s isolation, the fans are planning a demonstration in support of Caparros, the police are agitated about unpaid bills for their services and an anonymous statement has been issued threatening a strike by the players in protest at overdue wages and the sacking of Caparros.
In a recent interview Chagaev compared himself to “Captain James Cook being eaten by the indigenous people because he was different”.
In Chagaev’s defence, he was hardly made to feel welcome by the press or public even before he began to display his gift for chaos. Some Swiss are easily roused to suspicion of foreigners and people from the Caucasus region are amongst those viewed with particular scepticism. This stems in part from the murder in Zurich in 2005 by a North Ossetian man, Vitaly Kaloyev, of an air traffic control officer, Peter Nielsen. Nielsen had been on duty when a Russian plane crashed over Switzerland in 2002, killing Kaloyev’s wife and two children. Chagaev, in a recent interview with “Le Matin Dimanche”, acknowledged the culture clash, contrasting his rambunctious character with the emollient Swiss and somewhat oddly comparing himself to “Captain James Cook being eaten by the indigenous people because he was different”. Chagaev went on to outline that his strategy was to turn the modestly supported Xamax into a popular, people’s club, as illustrated by the unquestionably generous ticket prices on offer at La Maladière this season, which include free entry for under-12s. But, he said, his plan could only work if good football and passion from the players was on display at all times. Given that he had boosted the salary budget from CHF 2.5 million last season to CHF 16 million this term, Chagaev saw no reason why he should not be forthright in demanding maximum effort.
The faint whiff of xenophobia aside, Xamax fans do have plenty of genuine grounds for concern. Chagaev seems to be falling into the old trap of allowing his impatience to negate the impact of his additional funds on improving results. On the financial side, the debate is revolving around whether Chagaev’s money is dodgy or non-existent. His vagueness on the source of his wealth has fuelled speculation about money-laundering whilst, on the other hand, the multiplying stories of unpaid bills are driving worries that he may not have the funds at all. Either way, the fear of Xamaxiens is that Chagaev will leave the club on the hook for millions in debts and unaffordable playing contracts, leading, at best, to the kind of collapse that neighbours Servette and Lausanne are only just recovering from.
For everyone else, there is the additional migraine-inducing terror of a return to Constantin-dominated football news, a spectre already hinted at by the Mouth of Sion’s declaration of war on UEFA over the recent expulsion of his club from the Europa League for fielding five ineligible players against Celtic.
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