The inclusion of Neuchâtel Xamax, the local football team, in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire’s exhibition on ‘Neuchâtel, c’est quoi?’ underlines the town’s pride in the rich heritage of a club that were champions of Switzerland in ‘87 and ‘88, and punched above their weight in European competition on numerous occasions throughout the 80s and 90s.
Local fans were probably dreaming of a return to the big time when Chechnyan businessman Bulat Chagaev took over the club at the start of the 2011-12 season. Xamax were, at this point, occupying a relatively comfortable position in the top Swiss league, the Swiss Super League, neither excelling nor struggling. They had even reached the final of the Swiss Cup during the previous season.
Xamax, however, were thrown out of the league half way through the season due to the financial misdemeanours of their owner and were declared bankrupt in January 2012. Chagaev was arrested for his fraudulent activities and put in prison until May. All of this in the year of the 100th anniversary of the club’s opening, the subject of now somewhat muted celebrations.
The upshot of all of this is that a reborn Xamax side must now contest the 2. Liga Interregional, a regional league that represents the fifth tier of the Swiss footballing pyramid, in a situation that bares some similarities to the plight of Glasgow Rangers in Scotland. Unlike in the case of Rangers, all first team players were released in the chaos, leaving a team almost completely composed of youth players to fight it out.
This terrible turn of events is even more of a travesty when one sees the clean, modern and state-of-the-art Stade de la Maladière, built in 2007 and with a capacity of 12,000, which sits on top of a shopping centre of the same name and occupies a picturesque lakeside setting right by the centre of the town. La Maladière no longer hosts games between Xamax and Swiss giants Basel or Young Boys Bern; instead it welcomes local amateur sides to take on the once mighty Xamax.
Curious, I wandered down there on Saturday and got a 10chf ticket for the 6pm kick-off between Xamax and SV Lyss. It wasn’t a bad game at all. Enthusiasm often outweighed actual quality, but it was entertaining enough, Xamax running out 4-2 winners. The attendance was 570; a small smattering of fans across 3 sides of the stadium creating an almost ghostly atmosphere. The club must have had a large following – this, at least for now, has clearly dissipated.
The win puts Xamax in fourth place with 8 points from the first 5 games. Those who care for Xamax will be desperately hoping that the club can start their recovery with promotion this season, but it is a team of inexperienced players in an unpredictable league. Maybe one day Neuchâtel Xamax – and the stadium – will return to that promised land, but it will be a long road.