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.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The rise and fall of Unirea Urziceni

Champions League to obscurity in less than a year

Ex-Chelsea man Petrescu guided Unirea to the Champion's League
Unirea Urziceni started the 2010/11 season in a qualification play-off for the Champions League. The runners-up spot in the Romanian Liga I had secured them a two-legged tie against Zenit of Russia, which they lost by a single goal (1-0 on agg) to end their Champions League ambitions for that year. Fast forward 12 months and Unirea would love to have ambitions of any league at all.

Urziceni is a tiny town in the Ialomita county of Romania. Until 2003 the town's team bobbed along in the lower echelons of the Romanian league system, achieving essentially nothing. Unirea were promoted in the 2002/03 season, entering the split 2nd division of the Romanian football pyramid. It was then that they were taken over by a company called Valahorum, owned by local property magnate Dumitru Bucşaru who made his money cashing in on the collapse of communism by buying up half built Government building projects in the late 80's and turning them into flats.

The newly owned Unirea were quick to reap the rewards, being promoted to the top tier for the first time in their history by winning the play-offs in the 2005/06 season. They didn't start life in Liga I brilliantly, so the manager was replaced a few weeks into the season by Romanian legend and former Chelsea man Dan Petrescu. He managed to consolidate the team (who he had nicknamed 'Chelsea of Ialomita' and who's crest he requested be changed to a near carbon-copy of Chelsea's) to a mid-table finish in his first season at the helm, before a fantastic season in 2007/08 saw them finish 5th and reach the Romanian Cup Final, qualifying for the UEFA Cup in the process (they lost to Hamburg in the 1st round).

It was the next season though that really saw the Unirea story kick into life. Petrescu's men became only the 2nd team (after CFR Cluj) outside of Bucharest to win the title in 10 years, securing the trophy with a 2-1 last day victory over 2nd placed Timisoara. Just three years after reaching the top level, Unirea were the Champions and would be joining Europe's elite in the group stage of the 2009/10 Champions League.

As expected, Unirea were seeded 4th for the group draw and fared relatively well in drawing Rangers, Sevilla and Stuttgart in Group G, although they were heavily tipped to finish bottom and treat it as a learning curve. They instead performed brilliantly. Petrescu's men achieved a real shock in remaining unbeaten at home (including an incredible 1-0 win against Sevilla) and stunned Scottish giants Rangers by turning them over 4-1 at Ibrox. The home record was even more spectacular considering that their 7,000 seater stadium was not fit for UEFA competition and thus they had to play in Bucharest. In the last game of the group stage they travelled to Stuttgart needing just a point to become the first Romanian side to reach the last 16 since 1997. The German side managed to triumph 2-0 on the night, meaning that Unirea had to settle for a still highly respectable 3rd place, and a spot in the newly created Europa League.

It would seem that this is where things started to go wrong for the club. Petrescu left for Russia before they could meet Liverpool in the Europa League and was replaced by Israeli coach Roni Levy. Levy couldn't get through Gerrard and co. but did manage to secure a 2nd position in Liga I and so ensured Champions League football for the next season.

The draw wasn't kind to the Romanian's, and although they managed a goalless draw at home to Zenit, a Danny goal in St Petersburg was enough to see the Russian club through. This is when it started to turn really pear shaped for Urziceni.

The owner, Dumitru Bucşaru, had spent a fair bit of money on the club (signing players and improving facilities) he had in no way financed a Chelsea or Manchester City style mega-spree. After Unirea's elimination from the Champions League, Bucşaru declared that Unirea had reached their peak and that he was no longer interested in the club. He was, however, interested in trying to re-coup his investment by selling practically all of Unirea's assets for bargain basement prices, with Steua Bucharest being the main beneficiaries as they picked up four first team players from the 2nd best team in Romania. Levy left the club in the middle of August as the team around him was falling apart, the sale of goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis proving to be the final straw.

The owner continued the cull by tearing up contracts and announcing that the whole of the remaining squad were available on a free transfer. The club managed to cobble together a squad of loaned reserve team players from other clubs and it was no surprise that they were relegated.

Whilst the runners-up of the season before getting relegated is a massive shock, that was not the end of the agony for the club's fans. The owner didn't register Unirea in any Romanian competition at all for the coming season and thus they have ceased to exist. It is an unbelievable turn of events in that in just over 11 months a club can go from sharing a stage with the continent's best to complete extinction but it is a fate that reflects the shocking state of finance in the Romanian game.

The team who finished 2nd in Liga I, Timisoara, will not be taking their place in the Champions League as they have instead been relegated to the 3rd tier due to their financial position. The team known as Poli will be joined by 14th placed Gloria Bistrita who share their financial plight.

It's a similar story to that of Gretna who rise and fall was almost identical to Unirea's in that they were both very small clubs who secured rapid promotions through the leagues, and although Gretna never quite reached the very top, it is fair to say that both clubs were growing well above their means.

The story of Unirea, whilst tragic, could prove to be a stark reminder to some teams on these shores. With more and more football clubs becoming entirely dependent on outside investment from owners, tales such as this become an all too real reminder that football clubs are not invincible.