Sport has always been a subject ripe for documentary. It provides a rich narrative where the filmmaker can follow the ups and downs of a club, the players and its followers. But in QPR: The Four Year Plan shown on the BBC last Sunday, what we follow is not the players, nor the supports who follow the club, but the businessmen behind the scenes whose presence has become increasingly public over recent years.
In 2007 Queens Park Rangers Football Club was facing bankruptcy. In came four billionaires, Flavio Briatore, Bernie Ecclestone, Lakshmi Mittal and Alejandro Agag, to rescue the club and set out the blueprint for a plan to reach the holy grail of English football, the Premier League. Director Matt Hodgson approached the new owners about filming the day to day running of the club over their four-year plan, to see if their hopeful dreams could become reality.
The results of this insightful fly on the wall documentary are simply remarkable. You are left stunned that they would allow Hodgson to continue filming and let the camera get so close and personal as we watch the moneymen bicker and fume over the performance of ‘their’ team. Flavio Briatore loses his temper at the performance of one of the players on the pitch exclaiming that, ‘I want to sell this fucking idiot.’ In another match he angrily refers to the manager as ‘that prick in the dugout.’ In Briatore’s eyes everyone else below him in the club are merely pawns in his game as he hollers out commands from up high.
Briatore is represented as everything that’s wrong with modern club ownership. A wealthy foreign tycoon who equates money with power and assumes his finances allow him to act as he pleases. Eight different managers come and go up until January 2010, and when this leads to instability and poor results he seems surprised that the fans would turn on him. After he is greeted to a cacophony of boos from supporters after one game he snarls, ‘I want the names of who is booing me or I sell the club’ It is funny that with the amount of wealth and success he has, he can be so rankled by the agitations of a few thousand ordinary people.
The film is ironically presented as that of two halves, with the venomous Briatore substituted for the more wholesome figure of Amit Bhatia. Mittal’s son-in-law Bhatia is the polar opposite of Briatore. Young and energetic, he postures about in designer clothes whilst exchanging pleasantries with players and supporters alike. As soon as he takes command and Neil Warnock is appointed, results improve, and by the end of the 2009-2010 season they slowly march towards the Championship crown. But the shadow of Briatore looms large over the club, and after the illegal ownership of a player under his tenure there are fears of a points deduction at the season’s end. It’s a statement about the current game that the club appear to achieve promotion due to not being fined for financial misconduct as opposed to actually acquiring more points than all the other teams.
The story of QPR is a success then, but one only has to look at recent headlines to see that the beautiful game is turning ugly. On the same day this documentary was shown, Andre Villas Boas became Chelsea’s eighth managerial casualty under chairman Roman Abramovich after being sacked only nine months into his three-year contract. In the last month Portsmouth FC in England and Rangers FC in Scotland have both entered administration (Portsmouth for the second time) and now face liquidation and expulsion from their respective football leagues. It doesn’t take a lot to read the back pages of every paper and come to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with football right now. QPR: The Four Year Plan provides a fascinating insight into the modern game, an intoxicating fusion of sport and business, suits and tracksuits, working class passion and multimillionaire ruthlessness. Hodgson’s film manages to capture it all, like lightning in a bottle, threatening to shatter the glass.
By Alfred Joyner