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2016 | The Year Of The Underdog - Story No 5

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© SportsCafe

2016 | The Year Of The Underdog - Story No 5

Our fifth story in the underdog series features Leicester City FC, a relatively unknown club in England, that achieved the impossible by winning the Premier League for the 2015-16 season. In a money-dominated league, Leicester's incredible triumph has taught lessons that will last for generations.

For a club that was staring at relegation in March 2015, Leicester's prime motto for 2015-16 was--“Survival”. But some hopeless fan in a remote area of United Kingdom placed a bet that his team would win the Premier League. The odds—5000:1. “Are you crazy, mate?” That's how anyone would react to it because in 2016, Kim Kardashian had better odds to become the President of United States.

And there were others who scoffed when the club signed up Italian manager Claudio Ranieri as their manager in July 2015. Even former Leicester player Gary Lineker reacted to this by tweeting “Claudio Ranieri? Really?”. The Italian was considered to be too soft and friendly to his players. He was sacked as Greece national team's manager just four months into the job in 2014, while his previous track record at Italian club Roma left them losing the League and Cup titles on the last step. 

 Claudio Ranieri was back at the same country where he was once sacked by Chelsea for being too soft © Getty

Worst of all, there were his former employers—Chelsea who were the defending champions, who sacked Ranieri in 2004 as Chelsea's manager after deeming him “unfit to win trophies”. Now, there was the other man at the helm of Chelsea—Jose Mourinho—who always relished every chance to bully Ranieri when his Inter Milan pipped Ranieri's Roma for the titles in Italy.

Despite having to face all his devils of the past, the friendly, warm smile on Ranieri's face remained.   But beneath that optimistic smile was a steely determination that we got to see last year. Their entire team's value was around £23.1 million, which is nearly equivalent to the transfer fee Chelsea spent on a single purchase of Eden Hazard. But he had a bunch of honest, hard-working players who believed every little bit in what their coach told them.

N'golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, became household names with their performances in the midfield for Leicester City © Getty

In his own words, Ranieri tells about his players, “Perhaps you have heard their names now. Players who were considered too small or too slow for other big clubs.”

When the bunch lost to 5-2 to the mighty Arsenal in September 2015, Leicester City fell straight from second in the table to eighth. Nobody ever believed that by the time of New Year, The Foxes would be second in the table. 

 Striker Jamie Vardy burst onto the scene by equalling the record of scoring in 11 consecutive Premier League games © Getty

Jamie Vardy, the striker who was thinking of quitting professional football two years ago, broke the record and scored in 11 consecutive league games. N'golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, the midfield pair who were relatively unknown names by then, were topping the Premier League charts for the number of tackles they won. Riyad Mahrez, the name that should have belonged in the fourth division in France, was now a nightmare for top defences with his pace and dribbling skills.

 The team, however, had some difficulty in keeping cleansheets and had to come from behind on many occasions. They had, in fact, conceded 55 goals in the previous season. In order to solidify his leaky defence, Ranieri promised his team that he would treat them to pizza after every match if they managed to keep a clean sheet. The team would keep 9 clean sheets in the next 13 league matches. And on each of those occasions, Ranieri would keep his promise and take his players to a local pizzeria where they would make pizza with their own hands.

But the detractors were still not convinced. They were still of the opinion that Leicester City were totally dependent on Jamie Vardy.

 After losing to Arsenal for the second time in the season in February, Leicester won five of their next six games with a slender scoreline of 1-0, and during this time, Jamie Vardy scored just once while his other teammates contributed to six of the seven goals they scored.

When Vardy was not scoring, his teammates did the job for him. © Getty

Ranieri was still finding ways to escape the title talk and spare his players from the pressure of winning the title. “We’ve done our job – to save the team. Now it’s to enjoy the matches, make our fans proud – then we can do something more. But not the nightmare, the obsession, to make something different. No. Continue, let’s play,” he told the media in March, 2016.

By April, it was clear--the unthinkable had happened. But even with the incredible result looking  obvious, Ranieri was content just with the fact that his team had qualified for the Champions League. When asked about the Premier League title, the 64-year old said, “Hey man! We are in the Champions League. Dilly ding dilly dong! Come on! You speak about blah, blah blah! But we are in Champions League. That's amazing.”

And things came full circle when Leicester were confirmed the Champions on 3rd May 2016. They were the Champions of the toughest league in the entire world and the sweetest thing of all—their final game was against Chelsea. The club where Ranieri was thrown out for being too nice to his players, stood up in ovation to welcome his team of champions on to the pitch, while the players of the same club stood in a guard of honour.

Roman Abrahamovic, the owner of Chelsea, applauding Leicester City during the final match of the season. © Getty

Leicester City's win of 2015-16 has taught us so many lessons. It showed that it was possible for a club to be successful despite not having the financial backing of billionaire tycoons or big American companies. It showed that nice guys like Claudio Ranieri can finish first. It gave inspiration to many of those underdogs all around the world. Players like Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N'golo Kante made us believe that no matter how many rejections we face, how many obstacles we encounter in our life, we can still succeed when we believe in ourselves. It might not be possible once again for Leicester City to repeat this feat again, with the vultures of big clubs swooping in for their star players and the analytical brains across the league finding ways to break their system. But it showed that fairy tales are, indeed, real.

Leicester City's title win will stand as an inspiration for underdogs all over the world. © Getty

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