Chagaev has Xamax on road to ruin
If you thought English football was alone in struggling to design an effective fit-and-proper-persons test, think again. In eastern France, 78 years of professional football in Alsace has just come to an end under the bizarre reign of Strasbourg president Jafar Hilali, a man whose rampant arrogance brought the club that won the 1979 French title to its knees. Some 165 miles south, in the Swiss town of Neuchatel, a similarly insatiable ego is causing concern over the future of Xamax.
Chechen billionaire oligarch Bulat Chagaev has owned Neuchatel Xamax for less than three months, and despite considerable financial investment, grave misgivings are already being voiced over a takeover that passed with barely a murmur of serious opposition. The recent sacking of Xamax's entire coaching staff - including former Barcelona and Brazil striker Sonny Anderson - and a pair of first-team players after just the second league game of the season garnered international attention. For close observers of Swiss football, however, this was simply the culmination of a period of unease surrounding the club.
In an inauspicious start to his reign, Chagaev missed his own presentation press conference in May - on Friday the 13th. Having attended Chechen president (and close ally) Ramzan Kadyrov's gala match between a Chechnya side and an international XI (featuring Diego Maradona and Luis Figo) to inaugurate the capital Grozny's new 30,000-capacity stadium, his private jet was unable to take off in time to make the date. Chagaev's appointed president, Andrei Rudkov, fielded questions instead. It has proved to be a rare occasion on which the new owner kept his head beneath the parapet.
Set in a sedate town with a population of just under 35,000, Xamax has always been a very local concern. Even when the club was at its zenith during the 1990s - winning successive league titles in 1987 and 1988 while competing regularly in Europe - owner Gilbert Facchinetti maintained the club's family feel. "He gave his life to Xamax and acted like a father to the players," says David Lemos, a journalist and commentator for Television Suisse Romande (TSR). "Before every match for decades, the players ate at his house, and it was his wife that cooked for them."
His successor Sylvio Bernasconi (not to be confused with similar sounding Italian president and AC Milan owner) oversaw the construction of the new Stade de la Maladiere, opened in 2007, but never created the same warmth around the club - nor found the same success. "He never stopped complaining about the lack of spectators, the lack of results and about the amount of money he'd spent for nothing," remembers Lemos.
Chagaev differs from Bernasconi at least in that he is a man of deed rather than word. The day after taking charge of the club - then struggling at the foot of the table - he fired French coach Didier Olle-Nicole and appointed former FC Zurich boss Bernard Challendes in his stead. The 59-year-old didn't last long either. Though Xamax avoided relegation, they lost the Swiss Cup final to FC Sion at Basel's St Jakob-Park at the end of May after conceding twice in the opening six minutes, and Challendes was sacked the following day.
Something darker than a trigger-happy owner seemed to be going on behind the scenes, though. Swiss media had already raised the alarm after Chagaev's description of president Kadyrov as "like a brother" in an interview with TSR, but the owner shocked with his behaviour at the Basel showpiece. "(Chagaev) attended the Cup final," said Lemos, "and he burst into the dressing room at half-time, shouting "I will kill you all"… the next day, all the press were talking about was this and the climate of terror that reigned in the corridors of the club."
Still, plenty were happy to turn a blind eye. "I don't have an opinion," interior minister Didier Burkhalter told reporters at the time of the takeover, when pressed on Chagaev's closeness to Kadyrov in the light of alleged human rights abuses by the latter. "I trust those in charge." Defenders of the new regime simply argued that having money was better than having none. "The argument often used was 'if the Swiss were really concerned about the club, all they had to do was buy it. Chagaev has money and he has saved Xamax,'" says Lemos.
The willingness to invest his never been in doubt. Swiss football has rarely seen such wealth. Valencia defender David Navarro signed up for the highest salary in Swiss league history, an annual package in excess of CHF2m (£1.6m), Sevilla's Fredi Kanoute turned down a similar package to join him, as did David Trezeguet, but Almeria's Nigerian striker Kalu Uche took up the challenge.
The board did bag a flagship boss in Anderson, but the Brazilian lacked the necessary coaching qualifications, so Francois Ciccolini was named as head coach and Anderson given the title of team manager. "Everyone knows the player he was, but for a president with such ambition, it was astonishing that he named a sporting "boss" with such little experience," Lemos recounts, "though quite a few people were just relieved that it was someone well-known who could speak French."
It quickly fell apart, and the owner turned on the coach. "Chagaev accused Anderson of having taken players which he had financial interests in, and of having asked the club's fitness trainer to injure (goalkeeper) Logan Bailly," says Lemos. As well as the backroom staff, midfielder Binya and striker Carlao were fired after the loss to Basel in league match No. 2, following goalkeeper Rodrigo Galetto's sacking after the opening day defeat to Lucerne.
So what made a respected La Liga coach like Joaquin Caparros hop into the freshly-vacated role? "Caparros didn't understand the situation straight away," Lemos says. "In the press conference he addressed Rudakov as the president - even though he wasn't anymore." Rudakov was moved to another post as Chagaev appointed close confidante Islam Satujev to the presidency. At least the former Athletic Bilbao coach has been permitted to bring his own staff to the club.
With the season only three games old, Xamax's point-less (and goalless) campaign is just an inconvenience for now, and Caparros has something to work with - until Chagaev explodes next.