Leicester City’s gift of hope to the sporting world

It’s a story for the ages. The Greatest Sporting Story Ever Told.

A discredited manager, widely ridiculed upon appointment after overseeing a humiliating Euro qualifying campaign by Greece which involved losing to the Faroe Islands. Upon being sacked, the Greek football authorities stated that Ranieri had been “a most unfortunate choice of coach.”

Upon being subsequently appointed by Leicester City, two experts had this to say about him:

“Claudio Ranieri is clearly experienced, but this is an uninspired choice by Leicester.” – Gary Lineker

“Ranieri is a nice guy, but he’s done well to get the Leicester job. After what happened with Greece, am surprised he can walk back into PL” – Harry Redknapp

To be fair to both, those sentiments were not without justification given the context, and both men have since graciously admitted how wrong they were.

A team who had to defy the odds last year just to avoid relegation. A group of players, including some previously rated as journeymen, and a centre-back pairing many viewed as having their best days behind them. A season that was already remarkable for this minnow outfit as a result of Jamie Vardy’s personal story of making the leap from non-league football to breaking the record for goals scored in consecutive games in the Premier League.

Last summer, I wrote this piece on Slugger, comparing the competitiveness of sporting leagues across the globe by looking at the number of winners over the past twenty years.

The results were far from surprising. The duration of a football league campaign, coupled with the financial might of the game’s superpowers, means that each season usually begins with less than a handful of teams viewed as the potential winners.

Gloriously, Claudio Ranieri has stolen a record from Jose Mourinho by winning the Premier League just 294 days after being appointed (Mourinho did it some 332 days after being hired.) That must be sweet, given that Mourinho replaced him at Chelsea, a switch which The Special One, with typical arrogance, explained by remarking, “I was told they wanted to win.”

This excerpt from an article written about Leicester City’s success gives us an idea about his ethos and style of man management:

Rather than getting into rows with journalists, he shakes hands with every one before his pre-match press conference.

He also has a picture of every Premier League manager on his office wall because he wants them to feel welcome.

Offers of pizza for clean sheets – when Leicester finally managed their first shut out of the season in October – are as bizarre as they are shrewd.

The squad bonded further under Ranieri, who would routinely give players unscheduled days off if he felt they were tired. He looked after his team.

When Okazaki passed his English exam in April Ranieri made a point of celebrating it, even pretending he had called the team meeting especially.

Leicester City started the season with odds of 5,000-1 to win the league for a very good reason: as I outlined in that piece last summer, sporting fairytales at this level are extremely rare.

There have been other sporting stories celebrated as triumphs of the underdog. In football, these have included the 1992 and 2004 Euro Finals triumphs of Denmark and Greece- neither counting amongst the pre-tournament favourites and, in the case of Denmark, only asked to join the tournament to replace Yugoslavia after the latter country became embroiled in a brutal and bitter civil war.

Typically, the Americans celebrate their sporting underdog stories through television and cinema. Mention The Miracle on Ice in the States and people will immediately know that you’re referring to the 1980 upset of the Soviet Union by a young USA team in the Olympic ice hockey medal round-robin game at Lake Placid (celebrated in the 2004 film, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell.)

Similarly, speak of Jim Valvano, or Jimmy V, and people will think instantly of the ever inspirational figure and the unlikely triumph of his North Carolina State basketball team in the 1983 NCAA Tournament- again, celebrated through television as part of ESPN’s wonderful 30 for 30 documentary series episode, Survive and Advance.

There will be many articles written analysing how Leicester City managed to so gloriously upset the odds: the perfect storm conditions that allowed the Foxes to steal a march on the league’s heavyweights and never look back. An unlikely coincidence of collective underachievement coinciding with a group of players and a wise, shrewd and humble manager who cultivated a magical chemistry that kept them going from August to May.

The story will live long as a call for eternal hope for the underdog. Dreams can come true. Teachers and sporting coaches will retell the Leicester City fairytale for generations. Perhaps a film will even be made about this glorious achievement (if it is, I do hope Hollywood gets involved, as no one makes sporting movies like the Yanks.)

Leicester City are champions. Their manager, players and fans deserve their moment of glory. They have given the gift of hope to players and fans of underdog teams across all sporting disciplines, and for that we should all be grateful.