'The first time I met Max I basically got naked in front of him'
Ex-England back-rower James Haskell has spoken about his bizarre first meeting with Max Guazzini, the former splash-the-cash owner of Stade Francais who took the club from the fourth division to five-time champions of France before fraud and bankruptcy threatened it all.
Naked calendars, hot tubs with Madonna, audacious kits, gladiatorial pre-match entertainment, tragic suicide and fallouts were just some of the many hot topics during the Guazzini era in Paris, a story that is now vividly recalled in The Rugby Pod documentary The Rise & Fall of Max Guazzini – Rugby’s Greatest Ever Owner.
More than €30million was spent by the flamboyant businessman in transforming Stade from also-rans to French champions and that tumultuous journey has been recalled by Guazzini along with former players such as Haskell, Ben Keyser and Ollie Phillips.
It was 2009 – after six seasons at Wasps – that Haskell told his agent to get him a deal at Stade and the start of his two-year stay at the Parisian club was quite remarkable. “The first time I met Max I basically got naked in front of him on a cold rooftop in the heart of Paris,” explained Haskell.
“He gave me a couple of glasses of red wine while I was getting spray-painted naked and we sort of had a bit of a conversation. My French was very much like that policeman in ‘Allo ‘Allo! or Del Boy but it’s amazing when I got drunk how much I would be able to speak to Max.
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“It [the infamous club calendar] was his baby. He turned a non-existent calendar into the biggest selling calendar in Europe, the biggest selling gay calendar in the world. It’s art. Put willies in black and white, it’s art. He was directing everything. The photographer was there but Max was involved in the process and had storyboarded the whole thing. He was fully in the mix with it.”
Phillips, a winger who had five seasons at Newcastle, was at Stade for the same two-year period that Haskell was there and he described the incredulous experience of the club playing at Stade de France. “Awesome for me to be a part of, an absolute privilege to be involved,” he said.
“I’d to pinch myself bearing in mind I had come from playing for Newcastle with one man and his dog turning up to suddenly 80,000 people. That was Max. No one had ever thought you could get 80,000 to a club game of rugby and here he was staging five or six of them a season. He was an absolute hero of a bloke and not only that, he turned it into the circus that it was.
“Moulin Rouge girls, massive fireworks, the lights display, it made rugby into a show and people loved it. He was a visionary, a total disruptor, an icon. My first Stade de France game, 80,000 people, I walked out from the changing room into the tunnel and lining all the way up to the pitch were 40 topless Moulin Rouge and I was, ‘What the f*** is this?’
“Walk onto the field there is a wrestling ring elevated 20 feet in the air and then you have got dirt bikes that are jumping over the top of the ring for the middle of the field. It was just out of this world. You were like, ‘What the hell is this place?’ It was incredible!”
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