Editor's note: This article is part of New Global Oligarchs, an ongoing series about how emerging-market capital is changing Western culture. Read more, about the purchase of Manchester City football club by a sheik from Abu Dhabi.
NEUCHATEL, Switzerland – Given Switzerland’s love of soccer and foreign fortunes, the purchase earlier this year of a fledgling soccer team in this western Swiss town by a Chechen businessman promised to be a marriage made in heaven.
Instead, Switzerland’s first union with a soccer-loving oligarch has turned into a never-ending marital dispute.
During his first six months as the new owner of Neuchâtel Xamax Football Club, Bulat Chagaev has fired dozens of employees, including five coaches. He has filed paperwork to add a Caucasian tribe to the official team name and distributed Chechen flags to be displayed among fans. He threatened to relocate the team and even accused his own players of match-fixing during a crucial game.
Locals have reacted by staging demonstrations against human-rights violations in Chechnya and deserting the stadium en masse. Supporter clubs have vowed to boycott all home games until the end of the year. Those attending away matches use the opportunity to hurl insults at the new club president, whose authoritarian ways earned him a comparison with Muammar Gaddafi during a recent shareholder meeting.
Philippe Chappuis, a 42-year-old fan who has attended Xamax matches with a nearly religious fervor for the past three decades, said his patience wore out when Chagaev decided to broadcast traditional Chechen dances and songs before kickoffs.
“My wife always says that Xamax is my mistress,” Chappuis said. “Now it’s as if she cheated on me. As long as [Chagaev] is there I won’t be able to identify myself with the team and go to the stadium.”
Foreign money is increasingly altering the balance of power in European soccer. A Dubai fund recently purchased Spain’s Getafe C.F. And Qatar’s investment vehicle bought France’s beloved Paris Saint-Germain F.C. The English Premier League remains the most attractive for foreigners, with some of the best teams now owned by American, Russian or Middle Eastern investors.
In Switzerland, fans are longing for competitive teams that will rival the continent’s powerhouses. So when Chagaev bought the team in May and later announced that he would double the annual budget to more than $30 million, many here started dreaming big. Rumors of prestigious player signings and that Argentinean great Diego Armando Maradona might coach Xamax never materialized. But the team did hire some talented players, and a drastic reduction in ticket prices bought Chagaev some goodwill among fans.
All these warm feelings evaporated quickly, however, as Chagaev started firing longtime staff and severing relations with local sponsors. Poor results at the start of the season didn’t help either.
Questions surfaced not only about the origins of Chagaev’s fortune, but whether it existed at all when some bills went unpaid and salaries were paid late.
Swiss authorities recently started investigating possible money-laundering by Chagaev. They’re also looking into the authenticity of a document he produced to prove that his pockets are deep enough to run Xamax.
Chagaev remains evasive on his business dealings, but he has said he is ready to face any inquiries. He said in local media that when he bought the team Xamax was a “ruined woman” whom nobody wanted, and that he is only now finding out the extent of the club’s debts. He is unapologetic for his behavior, and said he would not start managing Xamax “à la suisse.” Xamax officials did not respond to GlobalPost’s requests seeking a comment.
Chagaev’s neighbor, Christina Minezac, said the public’s perception of Chagaev as an insensitive and authoritarian figure couldn’t be farther from the truth. She said Chagaev is a discreet and intelligent man who proved extremely supportive when her father died last year.
“His most important wish is to help Xamax and be left alone,” she said.
Set to celebrate its centennial next year, Xamax – the club’s name comes from the contraction of the nickname and first name of founding member Max Abegglen – has long served as a sort of ambassador beyond the Swiss borders for Neuchâtel, a charming medieval town set by a beautiful lake. During the glory years of the 1980s, Xamax shined on the European stage with prestigious victories over giants Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
Denis Müller, an ethics and theology professor at the nearby Lausanne and Geneva universities, said it is “undeniable” that Neuchâtel’s reputation has suffered greatly from the recent events at its soccer club. Müller, a Neuchâtel-born Xamax follower and the author of a recent book on soccer’s ethical challenges, said Chagaev was entitled to make mistakes but that he communicated very poorly and he displayed a shocking lack of respect for the country’s culture.
“He would have to operate a complete turnaround for things to get better,” he said.
A member of one of Xamax’s fan clubs who requested anonymity for fears of consequences for his day job and the fan club’s relationship with the team, said he was at first smitten by Chagaev and his promises of grandeur, but was quickly taken aback by the “Chechenization” of the team. He said he would consider ending his boycott if the team’s situation is normalized.
Chappuis said the damage caused by Chagaev is irreparable, and that he won’t return to the stadium that had been his second home since he was a nine-year-old boy until the Chechen president leaves Xamax for good. The decision to stay away from his team is painful, but has had at least one positive side effect.
“I have more time to take care of my daughters,” he said.
Editor's note: This article is part of New Global Oligarchs, an ongoing series about how emerging market capital is changing Western culture. Here's another article in the series, about the purchase of Manchester City Football Club by a sheik from Abu Dhabi.