Monday, 25 July 2011

The life and times of Neuchâtel Xamax

Russian owner wields axe at Swiss club

Been and gone – Brazilian Sonny Anderson was coach for two games.

 Bulat Chagaev has ambitions of turning Neuchatel Xamax into more than just an impossible to pronounce Swiss club. The Chechen billionaire took over the club in May and wasted no time in making his mark on first team affairs, sacking First Team coach Didier Olle-Nicole on his first day in charge. Not that his replacement fared much better - Bernard Challendes managed to steer Xamax away from a relegation play-off and to the Swiss Cup final, but defeat to FC Sion saw his 3-week tenure come to an end.

It has to be said that these are changing times for the club based on the beautiful Lake Neuchâtel. A relatively new outfit, Xamax were formed in 1970 as an amalgamation of two local clubs and have played in the top level of Switzerland, the Super League for the majority of their existence. They enjoyed a spell at the top of the Swiss game in the mid 80's, qualifying for European competition 5 years in a row, the last two campaigns being in the European Cup having secured their only two league titles in 1987 and 1988. They enjoyed semi-regular UEFA Cup football in the 90's and appeared last in the 03/04 version of the competition, losing out to French club Auxerre in the first round. That was Xamax's last real success of note, they were relegated in 05/06 (they bounced straight back up the next year) and have since bobbed along in the lower reaches of the 10-team Super League.

They were taken over by Chagaev in May of 2011 at the tail end of another mediocre campaign, although not without some controversy. The Russian business man didn't turn up to the vote to confirm his ownership, nor the first press conference, when he was expected at both. He was hardly inconspicuous in his absence. Chagaev was hosting famous footballers from yesteryear in his home country at Terek Grozny (the Chechen club which sacked Ruud Gullit earlier in the summer) in which he owns a stake. Whilst his deal to sign Xamax was being completed, Chagaev was sharing champagne with Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Robbie Fowler and the leader of the state Ramzan Kadyrov.

The man sent to field questions back in Switzerland was Andrei Rudakov. The ex-Spartak Moscow striker has been put in day-to-day charge of the club under the title of President. His first job was to dilute some of the claims of the Billionaire who had given him the gig. "The first thing is that we have to stay in the Super League," he said. "Today, it's about staying in the Super League and winning the Swiss Cup.” This was in reply to queries from journalists using quotes from the owner who insisted that the club was going to win the Super League at the first time of asking and that he was looking forward to them playing in the Champions League, some doing for a club who finshed 3rd bottom last season.

Not that Xamax have been slow to act in the transfer market. They secured a huge coup in signing former Valencia captain David Navarro to lead their back line, alongside solid Dutchman Sander Keller from FC Utrecht. They also managed to snap-up young stars Victor Sanchez (from Barcelona) and Vincent Bikana, who is a centre half from Cameroon who has been playing with Corinthians in Brazil.
The season looked promising and under Sonny Anderson, the ex-Brazilian international forward, their was a chance that Xamax could challenge in and amongst the European spots. At least that was the idea. The season didn't get off to the best start. The owner had sacked the entire administrative staff before the first game – leaving fans to rely on hand-written tickets to enter the 12,000 seater Stade de la Maladière. What followed was a 3-0 home defeat to Luzern and that saw Chagaev act immediately. Rodrigo Galatto, a Brazillian goalkeeper signed a week previously from Malaga and making his début, was unbelievably sacked by the club.

It seemed that nobody was safe, and that theory was proven correct after Xamax were unsurprisingly defeated at Basel in their second league game of the season. The major shareholder managed to sack his 3rd manager in just 2 months as he terminated the contract of Sonny Anderson and his entire coaching staff. First team coach Francois Ciccolini, who joined Anderson at the club in June, said "They can't ask us to perform magic".

Xamax are currently bottom of the Swiss league and in all honesty it will take a lot for them to challenge for the title this year. They are some way short of the excellent Basel and a turnaround in form that drastic was always going to be unlikely, no matter what the investment this summer. That's not to be said that Xamax isn't a good investment. They are a club with a small but passionate fan base and with patient building could potentially challenge the title-holders in the not so distant future.

It remains to be seen as to whether Neuchatel Xamax and Bulat Chagaev can work as a partnership, but after 2 months and 3 managers, it's hard to see there ever being an environment in which the club can flourish under his rule. It's another example of a European football team being bought under a foreign-owner looking for instant success, and whilst Chageav's wealth isn't the issue in this case, his methods definitely are.

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