x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

No place for neutrality under Bulat Chagaev's rule at Swiss side Xamax

The despotic canon of the Chechen businessman has caused a tidal wave in calm waters at Swiss club Neuchatel Xamax.

Chechen businessman and Neuchatel Xamax Football Club owner Bulat Chagaev, left, arrives with Club President Andrei Rudakov for the club's annual lunch. Chagaev bought the majority of the shares in the club in May 2011.
Chechen businessman and Neuchatel Xamax Football Club owner Bulat Chagaev, left, arrives with Club President Andrei Rudakov for the club's annual lunch. Chagaev bought the majority of the shares in the club in May 2011.

On a grand tour of provincial Switzerland, you could probably find places even more like the classic postcard image of the country than Neuchatal, but you would have to search hard. There are mountains, the Jura range, that rise around the city. There are the spiking towers of 17th century buildings. There is the lake. And there are the timepieces.

Neuchatal has long been a centre of that Swiss specialism, the making of clocks and watches, ever the symbol of the nation's supposed love of precision, of punctuality and of order.

There is prosperity, too, a tradition of business innovation, and though the population is relatively small, it includes a large proportion of recent immigrants and their offspring, close to 25 per cent of around 170,000 residents, according to figures from 2007. Among those surveyed at the last census, Bulat Chagaev may or may not have registered. Yet the magnate says he has been coming back and forth to Switzerland from his native Chechnya for the best part of 15 years, during which time he set up two large companies in Switzerland.

Since last May, Chagaev has become a household name in Neuchatal, and in not every household is his name mentioned in flattering terms. In public, people have been heard uttering comments like: "He has made us the laughing stock of Switzerland, and even of Europe."

That was one voice among the several at a shareholders' meeting of the Neuchatal Xamax football club in late August, by which time Chagaev's ownership of the Swiss top-flight side was not yet four months old.

More than 30 members of staff have gone in a period of rapid turnover, and among that number are five of the six different men who have coached the first team. Chagaev resembles some of the better-known power-brokers at the vanguard of European football's takeover revolution in a few senses. He is a businessman in his 40s or early 50s whose wealth grew after the political upheavals in Russia at the end of the last century.

He has told media in Switzerland he graduated in engineering from the university of Grozny in the Russian republic of Chechnya, made his money in various industries including wool, agriculture and construction, and moved to Moscow when civil unrest in the region made doing business much harder. He has offices, he has said, in Hong Kong and Dubai, as well as Switzerland.

Chagaev was involved in football before he bought Neuchatal Xamax. As a senior board member at Terek Grozny, who play in the Russian top division, he oversaw the recruitment of Ruud Gullit, the Dutch former Balon d'Or winner, as head coach there, a job Gullit held only briefly, and he was involved in the staging of the unusual exhibition match last spring in which Al Wasl's manager Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Franco Baresi and Fabien Barthez, among others, played, as did the powerful Chechen president, Razman Kadyrov. Chagaev has described Kadyrov as "like a brother to me".

If football has been an occasional tool for the Chechen government to draw attention to a troubled region they claim is often "misrepresented" in the west, Chagaev's motives in purchasing a majority shareholding in Neuchatal are more straightforward, he insists. He portrays himself as a rescuer, talks of relaunching a declining club and turning them into "Champions League contenders". And he acknowledges he has an impulsive, impatient streak.

Any number of coaches would testify to that. After Chagaev took over - for an undisclosed sum - he embarked on a recruitment drive.

Chagaev committed himself to paying high salaries, at least by the club's previous standards, and they were able to hire footballers from leagues with better, richer reputations than Switzerland's. Four - David Navarro, the former Valencia captain; Victor Sanchez, who won a Spanish league with Barcelona; Javier Arizmendi, a Spain international; and Kalu Uche, who went to the last World Cup with Nigeria - came from Spain's Primera Liga, on salaries as high as €50,000 (Dh245,000) a month.

With their arrival came a new coaching staff, too. On taking over, Chagaev had immediately dismissed Didier Olle-Nicole from the dugout. The club were still in danger from relegation and Olle-Nicole's replacement, Bernard Challendes, steered them clear of that. But in the Swiss cup final, contested with Sion, there were early signs of what would become a running theme.

Chagaev entered the dressing-room at half time with Neuchatal trailing and, according to sources close to players, burst out with the threat: "I'll kill you!" Sion won the final.

For the new campaign, Sonny Anderson, the former Brazil, Barcelona and Lyon striker, was offered the job as head coach, though without the formal qualifications to officially hold that title, Anderson had to delegate Francois Ciccolini to the post.

Neuchatal lost their opening game of the 2011/12 Super League 3-0. Chagaev blamed the goalkeeper Rodrigo Galatto, who was promptly told to leave.

Yet there were populist aspects to the new regime, too, and Chagaev's arguments that the club needed change can hardly be disputed. He made entry to games free for children under 12, boosting crowds at La Maladiere, the stadium owned by the local council, who last week filed a claim for unpaid rent.

The Anderson-Ciccolini era lasted three matches, all of them defeats. The goalkeeping coach Jean-Luc Ettori- who was also fired - went back to France and said to reporters: "Chagaev terrifies everybody."

That was certainly the impression of the new coaching staff. Joaquin Caparros, the former Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao tactician, was appointed to succeed Anderson. As Caparros's assistant, Luciano Martin, recalls: "We came across a dressing room that was unhappy and frightened. They needed to have the minds kept free from everything that was happening around the club."

Over the next three fixtures results picked up, with two goalless draws and a first win, away at Zurich, but after a 2-2 draw at home to Lausanne, Chagaev saw red.

Accompanied by his minders, whom players believed to be armed, the owner again burst into the dressing room. He shouted at several players and approached Caparros in a physically intimidating way, at which point his bodyguards intervened to separate them. The Spanish coach left the club a few days later. Some supporters had by this stage turned against the president. Banners in support of Caparros, the fifth head coach in four months, had been raised at the stadium and there were marches against Chagaev. In a rare interview, with the Swiss magazine Illustre, Chagaev accused some Neuchataloise of turning against him simply because he was foreign.

"All I want is to bring happiness to the people here," he said. His attitude to failings at the club was as simple as that of any boss. "I have a direct approach. I speak as I see things, I don't like wasting time. No one likes their team to lose and I think talking to the players is part of the owner of a club's job."

At least his next head coach, Victor Munoz, knew a little of what to expect. Munoz, a former Barcelona player with managerial experience in La Liga and in Greece, also includes on his CV a spell at Terek Grozny, where he encountered Chagaev. Munoz did not last long in the role.

And for a month now, a relative calm seems to have settled over Neuchatal. Munoz was still in the job for the game after a 4-1 defeat against Young Boys last month.

In fact, Neuchatal under the Spaniard have now won three matches out of four. They sent their feisty owner gleefully into the international break with a 4-0 triumph over Thun. They are sixth in the table. That is only half a dozen points off second spot, the minimum finish they would need to get a shot at the Champions League, where Chagaev would certainly ruffle some feathers.

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