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Biting the Bulat: Football's most controversial club owner?

By Greg Duke, CNN
December 13, 2011 -- Updated 1854 GMT (0254 HKT)
Bulat Chagaev's reign as the owner of Neuchatel Xamax is turning into one of the biggest soap operas in the relatively serene world of Swiss football. Sackings, fan disputes, fraud allegations, court battles, visa issues and lots more in just six months at the helm have made the Chechen as one of the most controversial people to ever own a football club. Bulat Chagaev's reign as the owner of Neuchatel Xamax is turning into one of the biggest soap operas in the relatively serene world of Swiss football. Sackings, fan disputes, fraud allegations, court battles, visa issues and lots more in just six months at the helm have made the Chechen as one of the most controversial people to ever own a football club.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chechen-born Bulat Chagaev is the controversial owner of Neuchatel Xamax
  • Chagaev has already sacked four coaches since taking over Swiss club in May
  • The club are in trouble with Swiss league for failing to supply information about their finances
  • Chagaev is also being investigated regarding a forged Bank of America document

(CNN) -- Life is never dull at Neuchatel Xamax, at least not since Bulat Chagaev took over the reins of the Swiss football club in May.

In just seven months since the Chechen businessman bought previous owner Sylvio Bernasconi's majority stake, sacking has followed sacking, rumors have run rife, and controversy has never been far around the corner as a series of bizarre incidents has moved the team off the back pages and into the forefront of Swiss newspapers.

Chagaev has, remarkably, fired four coaches, removed every local sponsor involved with the club from the previous season and dismissed his entire administrative staff, resulting in Xamax being unable to print any tickets for the opening match of the 2011-12 Swiss Super League campaign.

He also sacked the entire coaching team following the 2-0 defeat to Basel in July, before a widely-reported incident in August when he burst into the dressing room with his bodyguards to berate the players following their performance in the 2-2 home draw with bottom club Lausanne-Sport.

But Chagaev had not finished with his revolution, and in September he declared that the club would cut all ties with two of its biggest supporters' groups, who provided much-needed income for the club, thus alienating the hardcore fans he is trying to get on his side.

He is an illegal immigrant that could be thrown out of the country at any time
Le Matin newspaper

Off the pitch, Chagaev is also battling various authorities on a number of fronts, with a raft of questions regarding the club's finances still remaining unanswered.

Already fined $22,000 this season for flouting licensing rules after failing to respond to budget queries, the latest dramatic twist in the club's fortunes occurred in October when a court ruled against a player agent who tried to force Xamax into bankruptcy over a debt of 400,000 Swiss Francs ($444,000).

But, in another twist, the public prosecutor of Neuchatel canton subsequently charged Chagaev with forgery, for allegedly falsifying a Bank of America document which was used as part of the evidence to prove his solvency in that trial.

"The Bank of America does not recognize the document as one of its own and contests that it has been produced by someone authorized to sign it in its name," the prosecutor said in a statement.

Chagaev has subsequently accepted the documentation was false, but insists he had no idea how it came into the court's possession and that he was unaware of its existence -- and it will now be up to the courts to decide what part he played in its creation.

However, the drama does not end there. A respected Swiss newspaper reported that Chagaev is illegally living in the country, because he does not have a valid residence permit.

According to Le Matin, Chagaev has only a basic visa that must be renewed every six months, and only after leaving the country, and he was unable to produce a valid document when police visited him at his office in Geneva.

I give the club only a 30% chance of surviving bankruptcy and Chagaev will go down with the club. For him it is all about pride and showing that he can succeed
Journalist Emmanuel Saraceno

"He is an illegal immigrant that could be thrown out of the country at any time, just like any other foreigner who is on Swiss soil illegally," claimed the paper.

Despite all this scrutiny into his affairs, very little is actually known about the reclusive Chagaev, who admits to having close ties with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

He rose to prominence in the 1990s as a member of the regional government of Chechnya and owned a successful export company.

In Switzerland, Chagaev owns two Geneva-based firms, which reportedly oversee his oil and gas trading, real estate and construction empire, but it is his activities with Xamax which are causing greater concern, with some figures now fearing for the very existence of the club.

Emmanuel Saraceno, sports editor of the French-speaking magazine L'Express, told CNN he believes Chagaev will eventually bankrupt Neuchatel.

"The whole club is in a real mess. Salaries are always paid late and November's wages have still not been paid, meaning players are going into the holidays without their wages," Saraceno said.

"It is hard to see a way out for the club at the moment. Chagaev says he has money, but cannot transfer it in Switzerland, which might be true, but there are so many things we don't know about him -- for example his relationship with the Chechen hierarchy.

"It is all a bit of a mystery because Chagaev does not speak French or German and access to him is very difficult."

Saraceno said the club faced a strike by players unhappy about their lack of payment.

"Some players are trying to leave because they haven't been paid for six weeks, although they need three months without pay to legally free themselves from their contracts. Either way, I have been told the players could strike before they are due to return on January 5," he said.

The league have already fined Chagaev for not producing all the correct financial documentation and should they give him a deadline that he fails to keep, Xamax could be out
Journalist Florian Raz

"I give the club only a 30% chance of surviving bankruptcy and Chagaev will go down with the club. For him it is all about pride and showing that he can succeed, because he is being criticized from all angles."

Florian Raz, sports editor for the Basel-based Tages Woche website, believes the Swiss authorities might decide to throw Xamax out of the Super League before the fixtures resume at the beginning of February.

"There are only 10 teams in the top division and they play each other home and away twice. Half those fixtures have already been played and if the league found financial irregularities with Xamax, they could throw them out without it disrupting the schedule," Raz told CNN.

"In Switzerland, you need to provide correct financial documentation to play in the Super League -- and this mess has happened because previous owner Bernasconi had the right documents, which then became Chagaev's when he bought the club.

"A club has never been sold after documents have been accepted -- and the league have now changed the rules to ensure each individual owner has to provide financial evidence.

"In March, the league will decide for next season, and it seems impossible that Xamax will be accepted under the current conditions."

With all this disarray in the boardroom, it is worth nothing that -- on the pitch at least -- current coach Victor Munoz is doing a decent job with the team.

Xamax lie fifth in the table, just five points off second place, after a run of five wins and two draw in nine matches.

But, with the festive period upon us, and wages still not being paid, it remains to be seen whether those players, or even the club, will still be around when the Swiss Super League finally returns to action.

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