Leicester City’s is a story of the underdog turning the tables, throwing them away and building new ones – but they are creaky and could break under wads of cash.
When Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli was 12 years old, he was cheated by football. Despite his congenital problems with sight, Bocelli had not allowed the disability to affect his love for playing the sport. However, in 1970, he suffered a blow to the eye and consequently brain haemorrhage on the field. His partial blindness soon turned into a complete one.
Bocelli went on to achieve worldwide fame for his superlative singing but always found the time to follow football. It was a sport he loved, although it had cruelly conspired to take his vision away. On Saturday, football earned some more goodwill in Bocelli’s eyes.
The process began about a month ago. In an interview to BBC Radio Five Live, Bocelli revealed that when he realised Leicester City was on course to win the league title he called up the team’s manager Claudio Ranieri. The Italian coach demonstrated his characteristic magnanimity by accepting Bocelli’s request for a performance on the day Leicester was going to be awarded the English Premier League trophy.
The ceremony was set for the last home game of the season. Twenty minutes before kickoff as Bocelli walked with Ranieri on to the pitch, the stadium reverberated with the chants of Leicester fans. It was the day they had all waited for and Bocelli’s presence was not going to stop them. He stepped up on the carefully decorated stage and, after introductory words by Ranieri, started singing Nessun Dorma – one of the world’s most popular arias.
However, one had to stretch their ears to even slightly hear Bocelli’s rendition. The Leicester fans had their own music to make. Ranieri, like a father embarrassed by his children’s churlishness, held his hand up requesting them to stop. It took a few reminders before Bocelli’s voice became prominent. Once it did, Leicester fans did not feel the need to chant again. Their sentiments were no longer their own.
Old people cried; the young stood motionless. Bocelli’s voice had enveloped them. In the middle of his performance, Bocelli removed his jacket to unveil the Leicester shirt that bore his name. That brought a roar. He was one of them. In a time when many wanted to stand and celebrate with Leicester, the club faithful had accepted him. Bocelli had been moved by Leicester’s success; now it was his turn to stir the club and those who had made it.
Leicester City, though, had already been shaken and stirred. Living on the fringes of football consciousness six months ago, the club has altered its profile now. Years later, people might be tempted to ask where you were when Leicester confirmed its title success on the night of May 3, 2016. It could well be 21st-century football’s JFK moment. Unlikely to be repeated for decades and the wait could be longer.
Only over a year ago, Leicester was contemplating life in the Championship – the division below the Premier League. As it stood on the bottom spot, relegation was a veritable threat. Since then its turnaround has been the subject of discussion within and outside football circles. It’s not a story of an underdog’s redemption. It’s a story of the underdog turning the tables, throwing them away and building new ones.
This is why Bocelli wanted to be a part of it. It was not just a historic success; it is potentially history-altering. In the weeks leading up to Leicester winning the title, the city that had not been synonymous with football until this season wholeheartedly embraced its long-standing team. It’s a club that had never been the champion of England before. When it looked like the trophy was coming, fans, neutrals and bandwagon jumpers joined in hordes.
Sport sometimes affords us the luxury of recognising historically significant developments. Roger Federer’s run towards the Grand Slam singles record was among those rare opportunities. Rafael Nadal’s emergence completed the narrative. As it unfolded over time, fans and non-fans recognised they were part of something that would be worthy of commemoration.
FC Barcelona’s rise under the leadership of Pep Guardiola brought us a similar opportunity. Football was already changing but the Catalan club took hold to establish a dominant way of playing football. It was not an original idea but Guardiola’s interpretation brought an aesthetic ideal. The success and adulation that accompanied his vision was a worthy reward.
Leicester’s potential entry into history books, however, has only been realised in the past six weeks. Too many times weak teams had tried to break the glass ceiling and hurt themselves badly. Sometimes they were left so damaged that they could not recover thereafter. The status quo was as solid as it comes. It took blows but hit back harder. Surely, most people thought, Leicester was going to be flattened by a strong punch.
Ranieri himself refused to admit his side was a title contender until March. He had learnt his lessons the hard way during his tenure as manager of Chelsea in the early 2000s. Despite helping the club to finish second in the 2003-04 league season, he found himself out of the job as the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich replaced him with Jose Mourinho. Considering Mourinho’s later success, Abramovich would justify his decision but the manner of Ranieri’s departure left a bitter taste in the mouth.
The Italian coach’s reputation to constantly tinker with the side stuck with him. When he arrived in Leicester at the start of this season, there were many who wondered whether Leicester was shooting itself in the foot. Former England and Leicester striker Gary Lineker famously tweeted, “Claudio Ranieri? Really?”
Leicester? Really? That’s the question people have asked in recent weeks. As the prospects of the title grew, the bewilderment and shock took over. We did not have the years that Barcelona and the Federer-Nadal rivalry have given us but in recent weeks, football fans just swam in the current of hope and optimism. As they made their way in the sea, the fear of drowning was only more distanced. Eventually, Leicester and its well-wishers made their way to the shore.
But now that they are here, what follows? For a week now, Leicester has been engulfed by celebrations of the kind never witnessed in the city. For a place that was known for its significant South Asian population and not much else, the football team’s success has brought unprecedented attention. It’s not the football alone either. Minutes after Leicester was crowned Premier League champion on May 3, local boy Mark Selby won the World Snooker Championship. While snooker’s profile is nowhere close to football on a global level, it is particularly popular in this region. The spotlight is likely to remain till the bus parade that will celebrate the football team’s success on May 16. But there will be questions to answer thereafter.
Leicester’s story will provide inspiration to many. But it should also bring caution. The English Premier League is the richest in the world and it’s only set to be richer. A record TV rights deal signed last year is going to bring £5.14 billion in the next three seasons. It’s an astronomical bump even for the smallest clubs in the league. It will not be unfathomable if all 20 Premier League clubs fill out the top-30 rich list next season.
However, this will mean that the rich will get much richer and the success of Leicester is likely to remain an aberration. Leicester, of course, could become the part of the football elite by splashing the cash. But it would do so at the cost of losing its emotional capital. The very reason why Leicester’s story is worth celebrating is because it is unlikely to be played out again anytime soon. The new tables that the club has bought are creaky. Wads of cash will break them down.
As a model for unabashed capitalism, the Premier League works well. It survived the 2008 global downturn with ease and there’s nothing to suggest that its financial potential has reached its climax. There’s more money to be made, particularly in overseas markets like India and China.
Leicester’s victory will be used by the defenders of market logic as an example of how anyone and everyone can gain success in a capitalist system. However, that would discount the importance of financial stability provided by multi-billionaire Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Although the club has largely lived within its means, it has gained immensely from playing in a league that is threatening to make contests in neighbouring European countries irrelevant. While we celebrate Leicester’s achievement, Juventus has won the last five domestic championships in Italy; Bayern Munich in Germany and Paris Saint-Germain in France have won four in a row. The competitiveness of Premier League has come at the cost of weakening other domestic leagues. This is not to say that’s the only factor but a likely challenge to the current champion in Italy, Germany and France is improbable if key players are attracted to England by the impressive financial benefits.
A fix to this situation, however, is not in Leicester’s or football’s hands. The sport is implicated in the power structures that exist in our world. But Leicester, even if it’s for a while, has shaken them. The force of the Foxes’ success has been so strong that the world has been forced to take notice. Leicester has exceeded expectations and more. While it has scripted this wonderful run, many others have recognised a missed opportunity. For once the status quo was shaky and it was Leicester that took advantage of it.
But expect the establishment to strike back. Leicester will probably struggle to become a part of the elite. It shall remain a parvenu for the time being. Perhaps this is how this story should end. Leicester has knocked the gate down and yet it is unlikely to reside in the palace. If it becomes a resident, it will end up adopting the customs of the elite. But if it’s thrown out, there will be more reason to storm the castle again and weaken it permanently. Perhaps there’s a world to be had beyond Leicester’s success.
Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.