Football (or soccer as it is referred to in the US) in Britain has a close affiliation that goes deeper than the physical aspect of sport. It breeds an inherent, intrusive bond that few things in life can simulate, able to form an emotional attachment that goes further than kicking a ball into a net. Over the weekend, one of the biggest shocks in sport as a whole came to an epic climax as minnows Leicester City produced one of the most endearing fairytales in history to win the Premier League title.
To put this achievement into context, before the start of this season Leicester were 5000-1 odds to win the title, which makes the feat the biggest payoff in sporting history, eclipsing a whole host of underdog stories across the years that have threatened to challenge the capitalist nature of professional football.
What makes this achievement so special is the nature in which it was produced; the season before Leicester only just survived relegation to the second tier of English football and were widely expected to falter this current season with a bunch of players who were in all honesty, bang average. The coach was changed from the aggressive British bulldog Nigel Pearson to the consummate subdued Italian Claudio Ranieri, which was greeted by the press and fans in a negative light.
They were favourites for relegation, only really adding the tenacious N’Golo Kanté to bolster the midfield and relying on the same squad that narrowly escaped the drop. Ranieri was seen as a has-been, never able to win a league title in his 30 years as a coach and humiliatingly nicknamed ‘The Tinkerman’ due to his constant chopping and changing of lineups.
The season started brightly with comprehensive wins over Sunderland, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Everton and many more teams widely expected to finish head and shoulders above them in the league standings. The partnership of the pacy England striker Jamie Vardy (only four years ago playing non-league football for Fleetwood Town) and the silky smooth trickster Riyad Mahrez brought the goals that were edging out teams narrowly. The defence was the real match winner however, built on a rock solid foundation consisting of German veteran Robert Huth and captain Wes Morgan who both dictated the creativity of the opposition sublimely.
As Christmas ticked by, many assumed it was only a matter of time before the wheels fell off. Ranieri played down the aspirations and simply took each game as it came, focusing on the overall team energy rather than outstanding individual talent. The players were given breaks from training due to their lung busting matchday performances that catapulted them to the top of proceedings. People started to believe, fans started to think the impossible, the whole of the country inspired and in awe of this tiny football club taking on the money bag supremoes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and many more.
The result that solidified their status as title contenders was the phenomenal February 1-3 drubbing at the Sheikh owned Manchester City, who were in truth the favourites for the title due to their never ending expenditure. The way the side played for each other and counter attacked the opposition summarised the old school yet rejuvenating tactics of Ranieri, completely outclassing sides whilst the majority of the time surrendering the lion shares of possession of the ball, something that hadn’t been seen for decades in Britain.
Slowly but surely, with a few scares on the way, they remained resilient and marched towards the title, seeing off teams with their hardworking yet entertaining brand of football. The whole country galvanised behind them, willing them on every single game, every single challenge to become heroes.
They lifted the trophy at home after thrashing Everton 3-1 to consolidate their status as immortals, which was further emotionally epitomized by Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli’s timeless rendition of the captivating “Nessuna Dorma” as Ranieri stood by in tears.
People will be talking of this achievement for decades to come, still unable to comprehend how it happened.
As Ranieri put it so effervescently, ‘Keep dreaming, why wake up.’ Those mystical, enchanting words perfectly capturing the beauty and allure of something that was virtually impossible.