Thanks to Julia for passing on Alex Wade’s excellent article that appeared in ‘The Times’ on 9th February – Steve Russell
“For the past five or six years, England has been the centre for football. The atmosphere, the crowds, the way the game is played – for everyone involved, from players to coaches, referees and fans, the game here is the best. It’s the country that can give the best feeling for everyone who loves football.” So says Paulo Sousa, installed last November as the Manager of Queen’s Park Rangers and, until injuries got the better of him aged 31, one of Europe’s best defensive midfield players. Sousa was one of Portugal’s “Golden Generation”, a player who held his own among names such as Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto. In an illustrious career, he won the Portuguese title and Cup with Benfica and the Serie A title with Juventus, while also being capped 51 times by Portugal. Sousa is also one of two players to retain the Champions League title in successive years, winning it in 1996 with Juventus and again the next year with Borussia Dortmund.
What, though, is one of the modern European game’s luminaries doing at QPR ? The club’s travails have been well chronicled in recent years and include going into administration, off-field tragedies, the ‘Great Brawl of China’ and a remarkable Court case in 2006 after Gianni Paladini, then the Chairman and now Sporting Director, alleged that a gun was held to his head before a home game. But things began to change when the Formula One men went to Shepherd’s Bush. The takeover of the club by Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore – later joined by the world’s fifth richest man, Lakshmi Mittal – saved QPR from financial ruin. Ecclestone insisted though, that the club’s new owners would not throw money at it and cautioned that ambition that had to be tempered by pragmatism. His words are echoed by the 38-year-old Sousa, the sixth Manager, including caretakers – of the club since its takeover by Ecclestone and Briatore.
“I knew about QPR and its history,” he says. “It’s a beautiful club with a fantastic story and I want to be part of this story. The owners are ambitious, like me, and my dream is to fulfil their ambitions for the club. But we have to be realistic. We need to create a club philosophy, something which everyone from the kit man to the Manager and every player and fan shares. We must all know what we want to achieve.” Sousa speaks passionately about QPR’s past. He smiles when the club’s mid-1970’s heyday is mentioned, saying that the style of quick, pass and move football played by the club then, by players of the calibre of Stan Bowles, Gerry Francis and Dave Thomas, is “how I like to play the game – not the long ball, but to feet.”
Happily for QPR fans, this sense of the club’s past is, he says, integral to the creation of the club philosophy in the present. “You can’t forget the past,” he says. “You need to link it to the present.” There is a smile as he speaks of Lee Cook, QPR’s highly rated winger. “His control is of the highest standard. He could become a player in the style of the club’s great number 10’s.As a UEFA grassroots ambassador, Sousa mingles often with the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho. The former Chelsea Manager is a friend who has been happy to be on the end of the phone, offering advice for his countryman. But Sousa is also an innovator in his own right. He is one of the founders of the University of Lisbon’s ‘Management and Leadership in Football’ course and reads books on sports psychology as one of his recreations. Above all else, he is a family man, devoted to Christina, his wife, and children Magdalena, Guilherme and Natasha.
Sousa never played here, although he was offered a contract with Arsenal. He rejected it because “at the time, the English game was still too much about the long ball.” Now, though, he is relishing life at QPR. “I have an excellent relationship with Flavio, Gianni and the Board, and the fans have given me a wonderful reception,” he said. “Football has been very good to me but I want to give something back. I try to make players understand this, too. You must never forget that the fans make all this possible.” The charismatic Portuguese laments the loss this season, through injury, to two of QPR’s more creative players – Rowan Vine and Akos Buzsaky – but a run of nine games in which they are unbeaten sees QPR poised for a push for the play-offs. Despite this, Sousa sees next season as the one in which QPR will seriously push for the Barclay’s Premier League, with this as one of consolidation, in which “my dream is for the club to build on its potential and be a big club again, in the top division.” After a prolonged spell on the managerial merry-go-round, it may just be that QPR have got their man.