‘I Thought QPR Was A Barbecue Restaurant’ – Part Two

The second and final part of Adrian Deevoy’s interesting insight is shown below. Originally, it featured in ‘The Observer’ Sport Monthly supplement on 2nd March – Steve Russell

In the lift afterwards, Briatore exhales mightily, his face folding with emotion. ‘Gigi is a good man’, he says of his bereaved manager, ‘A very good man.’ Then, as Italians often do in times of heightened emotion, he eats. Joining friends and business associates – a communications billionaire here, a fat cat from Fiat there – Briatore orders a plate of roast lamb with vegetables (no gravy, steady on the spuds). There is a convivial, almost familial atmosphere, as Chianti is sipped slowly and some distinctly European cheese makes the rounds. Gianni Paladini eats standing up to one side of Briatore’s table. This may be so as not to crease his immaculate navy suit, but ballistics experts will tell you that it’s difficult to sit down to lunch while wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Amit Bhatia, Lakshmi Mittal’s son-in-law and representative on the QPR board – he is vice chairman – stops by for a chat wearing the most luxuriant camel coat the world has ever seen. With his laughing green eyes and perfectly tossed hair, he could pass for an Indian Robbie Williams. He is overheard saying to Briatore: ‘We must do something about the stadium.’ He is smoothly reassured that plenty will be done. There is a nursery planned for QPR toddlers, a DJ will play live before games, a catering overhaul is imminent, luxury seating is to be installed in the posher stands. The entire match-day experience will be re-evaluated and improved. They may even put some air freshener in the lavatories. One day, of course, if all goes to plan, QPR will have to leave Loftus Road for a more accommodating stadium.

‘This is an amazing place’, Briatore says. ‘And the history is very important. The club has been part of this community for generations. It would be a pity if we had to movebut it might be necessary.’ Lunch is barely over and Briatore has another pressing matter to deal with. And it is perhaps an insight into his obsessive character that this one detail occupies him for longer than it reasonably should. While he could be thinking about his hefty property portfolio or healthy hedge funds, he has but one thought on his mind. One of his gloves is missing. But this is not just a glove. It’s a Billionaire’s Couture glove, made out of several small animals and costing an arm and a leg. And, as Michael Jackson has shown us, gloves worn in the singular just look daft. Briatore pulls on the widowed one and flaps his arms like a distressed penguin. ‘Stupid, huh ?’ He bangs his palms together, producing the muffled sound of one hand clapping, while repeatedly inquiring: ‘Where is it ? Where has it gone ?’

Perhaps, it is mooted, one of the players filched it when Briatore was in the changing room – a couple of them do look slightly light-fingered. ‘If they did, I’ll take it out of their wages,’ he says, ‘Believe me, I will.’ He leads a surreal conga – including club chairman, clipboard-wielding PR manager, reporter, photographer and assistant – back downstairs in an effort to locate the rogue mitt. He retraces his steps, becoming increasingly perplexed as each revisited venue turns up nothing. Outside the physio’s room, he asks a puzzled player if he has seen the elusive item and, for an instant, it looks like the entire team might be press-ganged into the strange search party. Briatore shakes his silver mane and utters some earthy Italian oaths. ‘One glove,’ he harrumphs, sounding as if he may have launched into the familiar Bob Marley song. ‘No good to anyone.’ Yet by the time the glove is found, Briatore has lost interest and nonchalantly stuffs it into his Puffa-jacket pocket. It was, you suspect, the thrill of the chase that engaged him.

Brief as it may have been, Briatore’s pre-match talk works a minor miracle. QPR, who start the match in 19th position, play better football than they have in years and methodically take apart a strong, second-placed Bristol City side. Rangers are composed, confident and 2-0 up at half time, thanks to a fine brace of goals by Patrick Agyemang, recently signed from Preston and mysteriously known to the club cognoscenti as ‘Dave’. While ‘The Loft’ sings ‘Gigi De Canio, Bernie and Flavio’ to the tune of Verdi’s ‘La Donna e mobile’, Briatore is speaking softly in English into his mobile. ‘Fantastic’, he murmurs. ‘Two great goalsplaying so welleveryone says, “It’s like the old days…” wonderfulyesfantastic.’ The next call is in Italian, during which he more than likely says: ‘Playing out of their skinsa proper tonkingget in, my sontop of the league ? They’re having a laugh.’

It is 3-0 by full time – mercurial Hungarian midfielder Akos Buzsaky having driven home a classy third on the hour – and in the changing room there are wide smiles and high spirits. Briatore plunges into the fug of steaming socks, soiled shorts, hot food and horrible aftershave to congratulate his gladiators, most of whom, it is hard to ignore, are stark naked. Little Hogan Ephraim is deep in conversation with big Patrick Agyemang. Long limbed Jamaican international Damion Stewart works his way through a bowl of pasta at an impressive rate, while Buzsaky stands watching the football results on television, absently toying with the family jewels. Carefully avoiding the danglier aspects of the first X1, Briatore embraces several players before saluting the goalscorers. He bangs Agyemang manfully on the right pectoral and ruffles Buzsaky’s hair. The striker glows with pride; the midfielder accepts the praise graciously then gives his penis one last triumphal tug before striding to the showers.

Three days after the victory against Bristol City, I’m invited to Briatore’s well appointed London office. You can tell it’s an upmarket location – the local corner shop is Harrods. En route, I decide to buy him a small gift. But what do you give the man who has everything ? When you have your own Sardinian nightclub, Tuscan beach club and African spa, what more do you need to soothe your soul ? If you sail around the world in a 160 – foot yacht, what is going to float your boat ? I settle on a first edition of historical journalism entitled ‘The Heart of London’ by HV Morton. It goes down surprisingly well. ‘A book’, beams Briatore, visibly more relaxed than he was at Loftus Road. He mulls over the title and a light bulb goes on above his head. ‘Like Rangers, eh ? QPR – the heart of London.’

He settles back in a broad-backed leather chair that, perhaps unnecessarily, bears his initials and gestures towards a lower velvet covered seat on the other side of a vast glass desk. The espresso comes in dainty cups with engraved silver handles. Coffee having hit the spot, Briatore talks without a comma for 45 minutes, pausing once to take a call – ‘Ciao, Naomiare you in New York ?’ and later to check his watch, which is the size of an ashtray. He cheerfully admits that he stumbled into football by happy accident. He was in talks to open a ‘high-end pizzeria’ in London, so when a call came regarding QPR, ‘I was still thinking about food, I thought maybe QPR was a barbecue restaurant.’ His business plan, he explains, is simple. He wants to ‘do a Benetton’. That is, take a middling team and make them world beaters with a positive balance sheet within five seasons. This would sound wildly over-ambitious had Briatore not already done precisely that with Benetton. The Italian’s genius was in understanding that motor racing was not so much about engine technology as the sheer electricity the sport generated. Now, the marketing architect who made F1 the world’s most glamorous sport is preparing to focus his formidable attentions on the humble Coca-Cola Championship.

‘Bernie was going to buy Chelsea (before Roman Abramovich’s takeover),’ he recalls. ‘But I think buying a smaller club will ultimately be more satisfying and less of a painful learning curve.’ He jokes that whenever QPR’s new owners meet for dinner, he is the poor relation (his combined backers have a combined wealth of ¬£21.4bn). ‘I pay the tip’, he winks. ‘They take care of the rest.’ When he speaks of other teams in the second flight, he does so with phonetic difficulty. ‘Norwich’ is problematic, ‘Sheffield Wed-nes-a-die’ is a tricky one and ‘Scunthorpe’ is a minefield. ‘There are some very strong teams in this division’, he says. ‘We have to take it slowly, step by step. I don’t want to go up to the Premiership and come straight down again like an elevator. Little by little, that’s the way to become a protagonist in English football.’

Before taking his next meeting, Briatore announces that he is particularly excited by 17 year-old Colombian winger Angelo Balanta, recently promoted from the youth team. ‘Very talented’, he enthuses. ‘I think he will be a big star.’ And when the man who discovered Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso makes such a prediction, you tend to listen. ‘I work very, very hard’, he says, removing the trademark blue glasses and placing them carefully on the desk. It is a gesture that says: ‘I know people think I’m a vain, womanising money-worshipper, with an ego you can see from the moon, but I’ve worked my tanned Italian behind off to get here.’ Point made, he drains his espresso and picks up his new book, ‘The Heart of London’, he purrs. ‘You know, I like that.’

Rangers’ next home game is a tough evening tussle with play-off-chasing Burnley. Once again, the directors’ box is a carnival of cashmere and costly cologne. But, this evening, there is a distinct Briatore-shaped hole. He’s unavoidably detained in a stylish European location. In his absence Ecclestone holds the fort but, without his charismatic Italian ‘amico’, something is missing on the pitch, too: like the inability to hold on to a 2-0 lead. Rangers lose 4-2, undone by a superior team and an excellent Andy Cole hat-trick. Ecclestone does not look best pleased and can be seen texting furiously, with one thumb like your nan, at full time. In a stylish European location, a message arrives, ‘Get your tanned Italian behind back to West London’, it says, ‘there’s work to be done here.’

Adrian Deevoy

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