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Neuchâtel struggles with 'orphan' stadium

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Neuchâtel's La Maladière football stadium (Photo: Sandstein)
07:33 CET+01:00
Five years after it was built as part of a 200-million-franc ($214-million) complex, Neuchâtel’s football stadium is without a major tenant.

The stands of the stadium, designed to accommodate 12,000 fans, have remained largely empty since the city’s Xamax football club went bankrupt in January, 100 years after it was founded.

The club was kicked out of the Swiss Super League and demoted to amateur leagues, leaving the Maladière stadium without a raison d’être.

Now, a proposed merger of Xamax with Biel FC, a team playing in the second-tier Challenge League, is being touted as a way to fill seats.

“It remains a magnificent structure that suffers from not having a top-notch team,” Thomas Facchinetti, city councillor in charge of sports, told Le Temps newspaper, which devoted a report to the “orphan stadium”.

Facchinetti inherited the problem of what to do with the stadium when he was elected in May, several months after Xamax’s financial problems came to a head.

He said Biel, which already plays its home games at La Maladière because its former stadium is no longer usable, has not ruled out the possibility of a merger with Xamax.

The Neuchâtel team’s problems are blamed on Chechen businessman Bulat Chagaev, who bought a controlling share in Xamax in the spring of 2011.

Chagaev was later accused of fraud and his unusual management style — involving multiple sackings of players and staff — came in for heaps of criticism from the local media.

The gleaming new stadium was built with the support and active involvement of Swiss Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Burkhalter when he was a Neuchâtel city councillor.

Burkhalter was so enamoured of the project he wrote a book about it whose title in English is “La Maladière, a feeling of eternity”.

The book, published in 2007, recalls Burkhalter’s memories as a young “sporty type” who was fascinated by the exploits of the Xamax team, which once famously beat Real Madrid in a 1986 UEFA Cup game before 25,000 delirious Neuchâtel fans.

It also relates how the stadium project met the needs of a team without a proper venue for its fans.

The building indeed meets a number of other needs, housing a shopping centre, as well as parking for 900 cars, a fire station, an emergency services facility and a gymnastics centre for use by local schools.

According to the report from Le Temps, few people in Neuchâtel are outwardly regretting the construction of the complex, financed through a public-private partnership.

And the football pitch in the middle of the stadium is getting plenty of use as a training ground and for amateur matches.

But Biel FC is the only professional team using it.

The stadium, which costs a million francs annually to maintain, collects 60,000 francs a year from the Biel club, in place of the 350,000 francs a year it billed the Xamax team when it was in the Super League.

Because of its proximity to a residential neighbourhood and a hospital it is not practical to stage concerts there.

The idea of merging with Biel may be a climb-down, but the idea appears to be gaining support.

Neuchâtel's city council is set to discuss what is to become of the stadium at an upcoming meeting.

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