The Richest Team in the World
posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, March 16, 2008
These are extraordinary times for Queens Park Rangers, the West London team, for so long the poor neighbours of Chelsea and currently lying in the bottom half of the Coca Cola Championship, or Serie B. In October, the club, deep in debt, was bought by Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone of Formula One and, just before Christmas, Lakshmi Mittal, the fifth richest man in the world, who is worth 30 billion euros, also bought shares, making QPR effectively the richest football club in the world.
Of course, most of the fans are ecstatic. Never mind that Briatore, when told that QPR was for sale, thought that he was being offered a restaurant (as he admitted to the Daily Mirror), or that Ecclestone’s knowledge of football is similar to the average Italian person’s knowledge of cricket. For a team which spent many years in the top division, this was the chance to bring back the glory years of the early to mid 1970s, when they possessed some of the most skilful players of that era, including Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh and Gerry Francis, who was also captain of England, and nearly won the League Championship in 1975-76 (thwarted by Liverpool at the death). The FA Cup draw, which took QPR to Chelsea last Saturday, was an early opportunity to show off their new wealth against their rivals, in a match billed as the clash of the billionaires.
However, this has not been a smooth transition from rags to riches. The last two years have seen QPR almost go bankrupt. They were eventually saved by a former Italian football agent, Gianni Paladini (who is now regarded as a Saint by the Loftus Road faithful), along with his compatriot Antonio Caliendo, known to Italians as a corrupt football agent who has served time in an Italian jail. The reign of Paladini, who has remained chairman after Briatore’s take-over, has not been without incident. In August 2005 he was held at gunpoint and ordered to sign his resignation papers, (the case was later thrown out in court). In February 2007, QPR players were involved in a mass brawl with the Chinese squad, which led to the suspension of QPR’s assistant manager. And at the start of this season tragedy struck when 19 year old striker Ray Jones was killed in a car accident, two years after another promising teenager at the club was stabbed to death in a school playground.
Moreover, the events at QPR reflect some of the wider contradictions of the modern game. What price would you pay to see your team return to the top? For supporters of a club like QPR, which has the reputation of being a small, friendly club, which plays attractive football and was synonymous with the cultural movements of the 1970s, when rock stars mingled with the fans and the players, there are some dilemmas.
The hostility towards despised rivals Chelsea grew massively after Roman Abramovitch took over; now even his wealth does not match that of QPR’s new owners. At Saturday’s match, QPR fans taunted their rival supporters by waving £20 notes at them. There is even talk of the traditional Bovril being replaced by something more appropriate for the new era, supplied by Cipriani, the Mayfair restaurant owned by Briatore.
Briatore and his entourage, which includes Naomi Campbell and Elisabetta Gregoraci, are clearly enjoying their visits to Shepherds Bush and more changes in the infrastructure of the club are expected. As QPR begins its biggest ever spending spree now that the January window has opened, (ironically without former Juventus scout Franco Ceravolo, another Paladini appointment, who returned home early for family reasons), some fans have doubts. ‘Kropotkin 37’ wrote the following on one of QPR’s messageboards: ‘I confess that I’m a little scared now. I can’t believe there’s no one else on these boards who doesn’t feel a bit like this. We’ve all cried when we’ve lost cup finals. We’ve all been torn to bits by relegation. I’ve always been a proud fan of a small club. What’s going to happen? In a few years time, I’ll tell someone I’m a QPR fan and they’ll think I’m somebody completely different than they would have done before all this’.
Perhaps the one thing all QPR fans can feel happy about is the new manager, Luigi De Canio. There are implications here, too, for the new England regime. He and Fabio Capello share the same translator, Ruben Reggiani, a 22 year old Anglo Italian who hopes to row in the British Olympic team. When De Canio was appointed there were a lot of doubts. He didn’t speak English. He plays ‘boring football’ - ‘are we doing ‘catcha natcha’?, one fan asked. Most fans couldn’t (and still can’t) understand his formations or team selections. The same may happen with Capello when he starts organising the England midfield. Yet, the unassuming ‘mister’ from Matera turned things round before the spending started, with some shrewd tactical decisions. They gave Chelsea a close match, losing 1-0, which was inconceivable a few weeks ago. He has won the fans back and, together with Capello, may make some positive changes to British football. If Briatore doesn’t get bored in the meantime.
This article was first published in Italian in Il Manifesto ('Il Club piu ricco del Mondo') 8 January 2008
Geoff Andrews is the author of Un paese anormale (Effepi Libri 2006), the manager of Philosophy Football FC (http://www.philosophyfootballfc.org.uk/) and a Queens Park Rangers supporter.