Monday, 25 July 2011

The life and times of Neuchâtel Xamax - Russian owner wields axe at Swiss club

In his debut article for The Football Front, Jake Miller assesses Neuchâtel Xamax and their Russian

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. He even sacked 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. Xamax are relatively new outfit. They were formed in 1970 as an amalgamation of two local clubs. The club 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 during the mid 80's, qualifying for European competition 5 years in a row. The last two European campaigns came in the European Cup after they secured their only two league titles in 1987 and 1988. Xamax enjoyed a semi-regular UEFA Cup football in the 90's. The club last appeared in the competition in the 03/04 season. However, they were knocked out by Auxerre in the first round. That was Xamax's last real success of note. They were relegated in 05/06 season (they bounced straight back up the next year) and have since bobbed along in the lower reaches of the 10-team Super League.

Xamax were taken over by Chagaev in May of 2011 at the tail end of another mediocre campaign. However, controversy was rife. 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 is 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. "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 Xamax playing in the Champions League, some doing for a club who finished 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. To partner Navarro, they have signed solid Dutchman Sander Keller from FC Utrecht. They also managed to snap-up young stars Victor Sanchez (from Barcelona) and Vincent Bikana, the centre half from Cameroon who has been playing with Corinthians in Brazil.

The season looked promising and under Sonny Anderson, the ex-Brazilian international. There was a chance that Xamax could challenge in and amongst the European spots. At least that was the idea.

However, the season didn't get off to the best start.

The owner sacked the entire administrative staff before the first game of the season- leaving the fans to rely on hand-written tickets to enter the 12,000 capacity Stade de la Maladière. What followed was a 3-0 home defeat to Luzern and that saw Chagaev act immediately. Rodrigo Galatto, a Brazilian goalkeeper signed a week before the game from Malaga and after making his début, he 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 club’s 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 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 was 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 they could potentially challenge for the title 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.

Perhaps it's another example of a European football club being bought by a foreign-owner who is looking for instant success, and whilst Chageav's wealth isn't the issue in this case.

His methods definitely are.

This article was written by Jake Miller. You can follow Jake on Twitter here: @jakemiller10 .You find Jake’s work on his blog too; playingthepercentages

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