The following article was written by Adrian Deevoy and appeared in ‘The Observer Sport Monthly’ supplement on 2nd March. This very interesting feature covered six pages of the magazine so Part One follows and the rest will go up in the very near future – Steve Russell
It’s not all beer and skittles being a famous international playboy. Sometimes you have to moor the yacht, ignore the supermodel voicemail and get back to what you do bestmaking millions. Forty-eight hours ago, Renault Formula One team principal, Flavio Briatore, was in Paris outlining his plan for the coming season. ‘We’re going to have a lot of fun,’ seemed to be the central thrust of the campaign. Yesterday, he tended to his Billionaire Couture clothing company. Clothing for gentlemen who prefer their fly-buttons fashioned from solid gold. He then dealt with Westminster Council regarding opening a nightclub in St.James’s. Last night, he dined out and relaxed. It always makes a pleasant change to eat somewhere you don’t own.
But today, the powerful Italian tycoon must consign inter-pit politics, extortionate underpants and global property concerns to the back burner, for there is a new distraction in his life. Unusually for the former freelance love machine, this is not a beautiful woman (although he has dated more than most: step forward Naomi Campbell, Adriana Volpe, Eva Herzigova, Elle Macpherson, Heidi Klum – with whom Briatore has a three-year old daughter – and now fianc√©e Elisabetta Gregoraci). But you can be certain that Briatore’s latest love will prove as difficult as the most demanding princess and doubtless be just as pricey to run. For the teak-tanned entrepreneur has been seduced by a redoubtable old dame residing in an unlovely pocket of West London.
Like many before him, your correspondent included, Flavio Briatore has fallen, and fallen hard, for Queens Park Rangers Football Club, currently sitting in lower mid-table in the Championship. And, while appreciating that there may be some rocky times ahead, he is determined to make it work. ‘It’s true.’ he says, dark eyes crinkling behind his ever-present turquoise shades. ‘I have come to love the club, the people, the loyalty of the supporters. But we must remember,’ and here his expression hardens, ‘this is a business and although you must love what you do, you cannot make difficult business decisions purely with your heart.’ At 57, Briatore has made in the region of a hundred million quid’s worth of difficult business decisions. Some have been ground-breaking: his development of the Benetton F1 team in the early Nineties was nothing short of visionary. Some have landed him in hot water: he had to leave Italy hastily in the late Seventies to avoid a four-year sentence for fraud. Asked to consider his triumphs and transgressions, Briatore shrugs and says: ‘I am just happy to wake up,’ He cups his hand as if holding a delicate bird. ‘Life is very fragile,’ he sighs, ‘Very fragile.’
His arrival at Loftus Road this February afternoon, for a game against Bristol City, is signalled by the appearance of an expensively pointy cowboy boot from a sleek, discreet, blacked out jeep. You know that the boots alone cost more than your car, and in the vehicle carrying them is worth, in certain neighbourhoods, more than your life. Briatore marches briskly – and shadowing him you realise swiftly that he rarely goes below ‘brisk’ – through the players’ entrance. He signs autographs, glowers ruggedly into camera lenses and shakes the hands of fans and staff, offering a gruff ‘ciao ciao’ as he goes. Flanked by two dark haired and highly attractive women, Briatore takes the stairs up to the directors’ suite, mumbling in his melodic mother tongue as he goes. ‘Sometimes the logistics of the stadium are difficult,’ he apologises, negotiating a tight chicane. ‘I still get lost in the corridors.’ The directors’ suite operates a strict ‘no jeans’ policy but, in the case of Signor Briatore, they are prepared to make an exception. He does, after all, kind of own the place.
Before Briatore and his friend, the Formula One overlord Bernie Ecclestone, bought QPR last August, the club were going under. Gates were down, performances were poor, morale was close to non-existent and the money had run out. Relegation, and worse, loomed. The Super Hoops were in a suicidal state. The boardroom burned with accusations of corruption, a ‘friendly’ against the Chinese Olympic team in February last year degenerated disgracefully into a full-scale fist fight – ‘The Great Brawl Of China’. Then there was talk of reckless gunplay behind the scenes. In August 2005, before a game against Sheffield United, armed police were called to Loftus Road when then chairman Gianni Paladini claimed to have been threatened with a pistol and beaten by a group of men demanding he sign away his stake in the club. But all the accused, including another director of the club, were acquitted at a subsequent trial. ‘It was a very bad time for the club,’ Briatore agrees. ‘All their dreams had disappeared, all their hope. They were hopeless,’ he laughs, relishing the word.
But he’s right. Rangers were bloody hopeless. Then like footballing fairy godfathers, Flavio and Bernie waved their magic wonga; they cleared the club’s ¬£13m debt and in October installed Luigi De Canio as the team’s new manager, allowing him a generous budget to purchase players and build a squad. The motor racing men have since been joined as shareholders by Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian steel magnate and fifth richest man in the world, who, aptly enough, has bought a fifth of the club. Their aim: to get QPR promoted to the Premier League within three years and established as a successful brand thereafter. More than that, they want to rediscover the romance and theatre that used to transform a scruffy tin stadium in Shepherd’s Bush into a place of joy and wonder. ‘Football should be an event,’ Briatore declares. ‘Our mission is to make it entertainment.’
Dramatic changes have already occurred up in the directors’ suite at Loftus Road. There’s an expresso machine, for one. Then there are the elegant women with their tiny behinds and enormous sunglasses. And the dress-sense has improved immeasurably. It is impossible to calculate the acreage of cashmere in the room. The suite itself has not changed since the days of ‘QPR Rule, OK’ ?, those glorious mid-Seventies when Stan Bowles and Dave Thomas humiliated defenders for fun. The anaemic wood panelling is of a hue that would make any airport hotel proud and the royal blue carpet gives off the reassuring spark of man-made fabric. The crowning glory is the fake-log fireplace around which Rangers’ new owners and patrons now gather. Everyone either looks or is Italian. Men sport collar-length hairstyles not seen since ‘Howard’s Way’ ruled the ratings. They drink pink aperitifs and greet each other with kisses. They openly finger the fabric of other men’s blazers. There’s not a pint of Whitbread or a bookie’s biro to be seen. What would Don Givens, the Irish striker in that mid-Seventies team make of it all ?
At the centre of this perfumed throng stands Briatore. Tall and physical, he thumps backs, slaps shoulders and hugs male acquaintances. Women are welcomed with body language that says: ‘Now you are here, my life is complete.’ He works the room with ease and authority of an alpha male: large and in charge. You obviously don’t get to employ a thousand people without picking up a few man-management tips along the way. But now, Briatore’s considerable nerve is about to be challenged. There has been sad news: Gigi De Canio’s father has passed away and the QPR manager is on a plane to Italy to be with his family. This means that someone else will need to give the team talk before the game. There is no discussion as to who that will be.
Twenty minutes before kick-off, Briatore stands in a soundless QPR changing room, the young players staring in reverential silence as he delivers the most concise of motivational homilies. ‘You are professionals,’ he says, establishing unwavering eye contact with every person present. ‘We pay you, you know exactly what to do. I want you to go out there and do it. You win. For Gigi. Ok, that’s all.’
(To Be Continued..)