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The beautiful game

While many wealthy individuals are happy to leave their lifestyle investments at the latest sports car or superyacht, some prefer to pour their money into what is rapidly becoming the ultimate status symbol – buying a sports team.

From George Steinbrenner's purchase of baseball's New York Yankees to Mukesh Ambani's Mumbai Indians cricket team, the world of sport is awash with billionaires hoping to create an intoxicating but often elusive mixture of profit and sporting success.

Add in the potential adulation from fans that beats shareholder applause and any industry award hands down, and you can begin to understand why so many are bitten by the bug.

In particular, English football has become one of the most popular sports for successful businessmen looking to gamble their reputations on. In the last five years, the Glazer family, Roman Abramovich and a partnership between George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks have purchased Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool football clubs respectively.

Amit Bhatia (pictured) is the latest businessman to get involved with an English club. As the son-in-law of Lakshmi Mittal, patriarch of the family-owned steel giant ArcelorMittal, Bhatia is heading up his adopted family's 20% investment in Queen's Park Rangers FC.

The club has a rich history that dates back to 1882 when it was formed after a merger between two London teams: St Judes and Christchurch Rangers. Famed for playing attractive football it is located just down the road from the Mittals' London home.

Yet QPR is, in many respects, an unusual choice. Currently playing in the second-tier of the English football pyramid, the club has had a chequered recent history with the real threat of bankcruptcy hanging over it and a boardroom battle that ended with the then chairman accusing seven men of forcing him to resign at gunpoint during a game. All seven were later acquitted.

It was against this background that Formula One empresario Bernie Ecclestone and F1 Renault team owner Flavio Briatore stepped in to save the club which was just days from closure, crippled by debt and a €12 million loan whose interest payment alone were €1.2 a year.

Briatore's Sarita Capital investment vehicle and Ecclestone spent an initial €16.5 million on buying the club in September 2007, but it wasn't long before they began leaning on a few old friends to get involved.

"We have known Bernie and Flavio for many years and consider them very close friends," Bhatia told Campden FB, who revealed he first learnt of the duo's acquisition when he saw the news on TV.

"Soon after I was approached by Flavio who said I should come over to discuss a few things. We sat and talked and then he asked if we would like to be involved in QPR, a club that he said had a great history and great tradition."

The Mittals had been invited to become financially involved in a number of other English clubs, but Bhatia says he was attracted to QPR for a number of reasons.

"The club felt like an unpolished diamond that just needed a bit of nurturing and caring. There are a lot of people, everyone from the management to the fans, who I felt wanted good things for QPR and I think it has the potential to be great," says Bhatia.

Cynics naturally would point out that this is a low-risk investment for a family that, despite the credit crunch, is still worth over €16 billion. The only way is up for this investment and, if it comes off, then Bhatia and co will be hailed as saviours.

Yet the man himself is keen to demonstrate that the investment is more than just a simple punt on a club down on its luck. "At the end of the day I don't think you do anything in life hoping to lose money but this is not a monetary investment for me or my father-in-law – it is an investment of passion," he said.

"There is a joy that you get out of being involved in sport that you do not get in business, so this is an investment that came about because of our love for sport."

The family's investment has certainly had an impact. The club is today worth more than what the Mittals and the F1 moguls paid for it and is currently sat in its highest league position for 12 years. The ultimate aim is promotion to the Premier League – where it would face the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal – within three years and then European football where it aims to compete with giants such as Real Madrid and AC Milan.

Away from the pitch, the owners have used their contacts to create a new identity by redesigning the club logo, attracting high level sponsors including Gulf Air, Lotto and the Santander Group, and modernising the club's facilities by introducing fine dining courtesy of Cipriani's.

As vice chairman, Bhatia says his role is to help overall decision-making at the club and there have been a number of important one's he has had to make – not all of which have been popular. He admits a new ticket pricing structure that outraged fans was a mistake and took personal charge, resulting in an open letter on the club's website, of resolving the matter.

The day we met in his office in London's Mayfair, the board had just sacked its fouth manager in the 13 months since they all bought into the club. A clash of personalities was the conduit for the latest coach's departure and Bhatia shows he has quickly picked up English football-speak.

"It is part and parcel of the game unfortunately," he said with the air of a man who has been around the game a lot longer than 10 months. "There are tough decisions to be made and we are not too proud to say that we have made decisions that have not always been the best ones – but we always try to do the right thing."

Bhatia grew up in New Delhi, India where his family is involved in real estate and is independently wealthy. He moved to London aged 15 to attend school before heading to the US where he studied economics and investment management at Cornell University. Jobs at Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse in London and New York followed before he married Lakshmi's only daughter, Vanisha Mittal, at a famously lavish ceremony at the Palais de Versailles in France.

Opportunities arose at both his father's and father-in-law's businesses, but Bhatia says he likes doing things for himself. To prove the point, he set up his own private investment house, Swordfish, that today has its own hedge fund and a private equity business. Both businesses manage assets of several hundred million dollars each.

Clearly very passionate about finance, he is keen to reveal his love of sport. "My whole life I have been involved in sport – cricket is obviously the number one sport in India so I played it to a quite high level. Then I started to play a bit of tennis and competed at Junior Wimbledon. Now I play golf, a bit of football and a lot of squash. I play anything that I can," he said.

QPR is not the first time he has combined sport and business –  a dream scenario in his own words. Alongside his father-in-law, Bhatia set up the Mittal Champions Trust, a non-profit venture that supports and funds talented Indian sportspersons and potential Olympic medal winners to enable them to access the best specialists in the world. MCT was behind India's first ever individual gold medallist at the Olympics in Beijing and Bhatia hopes to help his home country to achieve a level of success comparable to its size.

QPR is just his latest venture and although he admits it is taking up increasingly more of his time, given the tone of his voice it is a privilege not a chore.

In particular, it is the human side of the investment that most appeals to him and says he has a very active role with the players. "I spend quite a lot of time with them.  We had a dinner for all the players and their wives plus all the management and their spouses at our house." he said.

"We want to get to know the players and our families to get to know their families so they realise that we are all here for a common goal which is to win football matches."

While it appears to be all happy families so far, there is a risk that one of the three investors will want to pull out or that a difference of opinion will lead to a split in the future. This is exactly the situation that has happened at Liverpool where Hicks and Gillett Jr have fallen out.

Bhatia claims such an evantuality is extremely unlikely at QPR. He describes both Briatore and Ecclestone as close friends and says they even take holidays together. "If anything I  think this leads to a much better dynamic because it allows communication to be very open and very forthright on a regular basis," says Bhatia.

Consequently, he scotches recent rumours that the Mittals would buy out their two partners saying it was a comment taken out of context. "When you truly love something you want to own as much as you can. However, the idea of one of us buying the other out is as far away from the truth as it can be for the simple reason that we are all involved in it because of each others involvement."

Although the Mittals have a minority stake, Bhatia says they have just as much of a voice as those who own a majority stake. "We are very good friends who have a lot of respect for each other so I think that in the long run we will be able to make much better decisions as a family for the club."

If passion counted for on the field success then the club is well set for success. "I absolutely adore the club and I am first and foremost a fan," says Bhatia. Only time will tell whether his dream becomes a reality.

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