February 26, 2021

New Owner Brings Checkered History to Swiss Soccer Club

This week, he became probably the most powerful asylum seeker in the world of soccer, following his election as vice president of Neuchâtel Xamax, a Swiss club that was acquired in May by Bulat Chagaev, a Chechen businessman whom Mr. Satujev has described as a childhood friend.

Xamax’s takeover by a Chechen tycoon caught Swiss politicians and soccer fans by surprise. And since his purchase of the club, Mr. Chagaev has kept his new employees on their toes by orchestrating a fast-paced game of musical chairs, ousting about 30 staff members and replacing the coach three times.

Mr. Chagaev, who divides his time between Chechnya and Switzerland, did not attend a shareholders’ meeting Monday. But he did vote his 51 percent majority stake by proxy to elect himself president, at the helm of a downsized board of directors on which only Mr. Satujev also secured a seat. Over the past decade, Xamax’s board had contained as many as 10 directors. To allow the overhaul, minority shareholders first had to accept a revision of the club bylaws, eliminating a previous requirement that members of the board hold Swiss citizenship.

Mr. Chagaev purchased his majority stake from Sylvio Bernasconi, the owner of a local construction company, who has since kept a low profile and refused to disclose the exact terms of the transaction.

The club is a minnow on the European stage, particularly compared with clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City that also have foreign ownership. Xamax last challenged powerhouses like Real Madrid in the mid-1980s, when it briefly dominated Swiss soccer. Still, Xamax’s tumultuous takeover adds an intriguing chapter to the debate over who should control a sport that is the world’s most popular, but that has also generated controversy because of some of its murky practices as well as finances.

In addition, the recent upheaval at Xamax and Sion, another Swiss club run by an outspoken president, is occurring in the country where soccer rules are decided. Both FIFA, which runs world soccer, and UEFA, the European governing body, are based in Switzerland.

In fact, a legal dispute between Sion and regulators over whether the club fielded ineligible players turned last week into a personal spat between Christian Constantin, the president of Sion, and Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, who both originate from the Swiss canton of Valais. Mr. Constantin, whose club could be sanctioned with exclusion from European competition, also accused UEFA of running soccer like a totalitarian regime.

In Neuchâtel, meanwhile, Mr. Chagaev’s ties to the Moscow-backed government in Chechnya have raised eyebrows. Mr. Chagaev turned down an interview request. But he recently told the Swiss magazine L’Illustré that he was willing to organize charter flights to Chechnya to show his Swiss detractors that President Ramzan A. Kadyrov, whom he described as a friend, was not running a brutal dictatorship but instead allowing Chechnya “to rise again, which might not suit everybody.”

Mr. Chagaev also offered to withdraw from Xamax if a Swiss investor could be found to rescue the club. He claimed to have unearthed evidence of past fraud at the club as well as hidden debts, after decades during which Xamax was mostly bankrolled by local construction entrepreneurs.

“I was called to take over an agonizing club and everybody now calls me a criminal and a thief,” Mr. Chagaev said.

Like other tycoons who have purchased a soccer club, Mr. Chagaev initially promised fans what Xamax most needed, his cash and ambition. He pledged to raise the budget to 30 million Swiss francs, or almost $38 million — almost three times Xamax’s annual revenue — and lift the team back to its league-winning level of 25 years ago.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/02/business/global/new-owner-brings-checkered-history-to-swiss-soccer-club.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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