Old Fox in dream land

Old Fox in dream land

Football : Claudio Ranieri, ridiculed by many in the past, expertly charted Leicester City's rise to the pinnacle

Old Fox in dream land

Almost two thousand years ago, the Romans built a straight road through the heart of England that helped put the city of Leicester on the map. And on last Monday, a Roman, Claudio Ranieri, has taken Leicester to a title that is, rightly, being acclaimed as the eighth wonder of the world.

There is an explosion of life, of joy, in the city that none of us Leicestershire natives ever expected to be part of. We know where the players, the 5,000-to-1 outsiders to win the Premier League, were on Monday night. They broadcast their own celebration from the home of Jamie Vardy, their rags-to-riches goal scorer, as the Premier League title was handed to them by an implosion of Tottenham Hotspur in a brutish match down in London at Chelsea that was drawn 2-2.

But where was their manager? He had been at home, in Rome, taking lunch with his 96-year-old mother, Renata, before boarding a private airplane made available by Leicester’s Thai billionaire owner to a discreet viewing in Leicester with his wife of 40 years, Rosanna, and his two assistants.

Leicester is a multiethnic team of nationalities spanning the globe, every one of them spurred on by the adversity of having been rejected by bigger clubs. Theirs is the best story in sports: a band of brothers who know that they are the sum of parts, galvanised by hope and spirit, and guided by this polite, sometime ridiculed, aging Italian coach.

It was a fellow manager, Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger, who said that Leicester is a compelling psychological study because not one of its players was born on a red carpet, to play in the Champions League at 18.

No, sir. Leicester’s players had to toil, to fight, to make themselves believe that together they could earn the right to win the English league, and next season to enter the realm of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich — clubs that put together teams costing six times the knockdown prices at which the Leicester City players were valued as a whole.
From here on, who knows what they can achieve? Who, other than Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the billionaire from Bangkok who saved Leicester City from insolvency six years ago, foresaw Leicester taking on the world in this wonderfully ridiculous way?

A Thai benefactor, players from nonleague competitions and from nine different lands calling themselves City Foxes, and this improbable mentor from Rome who, in his 30 years as a coach (and before that 12 years as a player) had never previously won a top title.

There are people who seriously believe that it was karma, the blessing of Leicester’s King Power stadium by monks from the Buddhist temple where Vichai worships, that has made this happen.

There is the other story, linked to the bones of Richard III, a former king of England, being buried in Leicester, where he fell in battle.

There is the way that all the big clubs — Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool — fell beneath their very expensive parts to lay the trophy open to a team like Leicester. It would be demeaning if it were not so wondrous.

This is the triumph of the improbable, the example to children everywhere that in sports, achievement starts with believing and can become reality through the process of hard work, of collective spirit, of daring to punch the giants on the nose and outrun them.

When people ask where will this end, they should go back one year to when Leicester was the last placed team in the Premier League. It was then, fighting against relegation and fighting together for survival as a team, that Leicester turned fear into something peerless.

Ranieri arrived in the summer, a manager fired by Greece, his then 27th job as a soccer coach, because the Greeks had lost to another fairy story — the Faroe Islands.

When the Srivaddhanaprabha family interviewed candidates to take over their modest little team, they asked Ranieri whether he would be prepared to stay should Leicester be relegated at the end of this season out of the Premiership.

He said he would. But, the wily fox of a nomadic manager that he is, Ranieri apparently also negotiated a 5 million pound bonus for himself, or about $7.4 million, in the event that he helped Leicester to be Premier League champion.

More than likely, the owner considered that to be an easy clause to sign. But he liked the manager who could even contemplate the unthinkable.

Those of us who have been around Ranieri, and have seen how at his training sessions he can appear the most childlike enthusiast on the playing fields, appreciate that there is a humility about him that is contagious. He loves the ball almost the way an infant learns to.

He exuded this joy to players half, almost a third his age when he was Chelsea’s manager a dozen years ago. He was fired after a change of ownership, and the team that he was building was handed to the younger, brasher José Mourinho.

And when they met again as adversaries, Mourinho spoke disparagingly of Ranieri as the elder who in more than 20 clubs never won a major title. Well, he has now. Leicester is his 28th team on a managerial road that has encompassed Italy, Spain, Monaco, Greece and England.

His maiden championship, and Leicester’s too, started in a way that intrigued the players. Ranieri joined them at preseason camp in Austria last August, and for the first week he did nothing but observe their workouts.

He was assessing what they had. Their skills, their desire, their togetherness. Ranieri was known in his Chelsea days as the Tinkerman, a term he once asked me to explain to him.

It meant a meddler, a coach whose substitutions baffled the players. The Tinkerman this season made fewer changes than any opponent. He kept the bond that he saw preseason, and ran with it to the title that seemed incomprehensible.

Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper cast him on Tuesday as Emperor Claudius Britannicus. This is one Roman conqueror that Leicester folk will follow wherever he takes them, onward and upward into Europe. “I am proud,” Ranieri said, “to have led this group of footballers — real men, humble people who gave everything to achieve a common dream.”