From Goran Ivanisevic to Leicester City: The joy of watching an underdog triumph

Jigar Mehta, May, 12 2016

“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.”  - Alan Turing

It was coming but you still can't believe it happened. You are dumbstruck, but you are still able to enjoy the vibrant celebrations. You are disappointed with your club's failure, but still delighted for the one that has won the title. This doesn't happen often but when it does it is so special. This is the impact of Leicester City's Premier League win. Such is the joy of witnessing an underdog story.

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Growing up in a cricket-crazy India, I was brought up to the stories of how Kapil Dev's devils defied the odds to win the World Cup in 1983, how they upset the best to script history. By the age of 10 I had madly fallen in love with cricket and there was a reluctance to follow any other sport.

Five years later, it all changed. It was the monsoon of 2001 when the famous Goran Ivanisevic story played out. It took an incredible journey to change my perception of other sports.

Goran Ivanisevic, a wild card at 2001 Wimbledon, miraculously went on to become an unlikely champion. Getty

Goran Ivanisevic, a wild card at 2001 Wimbledon, miraculously went on to become an unlikely champion. Getty

I was fascinated by Ivanisevic's game play and more so by the story of a man who had gone through a roller-coaster ride, missing almost two years of his career with a shoulder injury, sneaking in as a wild card ranked 125th in the world, and winning the Wimbledon.

This is when I developed an emotional connection with the Croatian, and after every win it just got stronger. The winning scenes after a marathon final against Pat Rafter brought tears to my eyes, it was as if I was riding the emotional roller-coaster along with Ivanisevic. I hadn't heard of him 15 days earlier, but still, it brought unbridled joy, more so because it was one of the greatest underdog stories.

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Watching Leicester lift the title brought back memories of that windy evening at Wimbledon. Here was a team that was on the cusp of relegation at the same juncture a year ago, and now they are the champions of England.

Bloody hell!

Our teams finished lower than this club. Some even had the chance of ending a frustrating long wait for a championship title. But the joy of watching an underdog win outweighed all the disappointments. So the intriguing question is - why do we get so much joy when an underdog wins?

"We get joy because of the passion and love the underdogs have for the game,” says former India cricketer Mohammad Kaif. "Talent might not be the same, nor the facilities or coaches or infrastructure, but when the players play, they think of giving it all in order to power their team past the finish line no matter what.”

"People like to see an upset. People like a good story. They like to see the unexpected occur," West Indies cricketer Samuel Badree tells FirstPost.

"Against India in the World T20 semi final this year, we were huge underdogs. India were at home at the Wankhede (stadium), there were thousands of vocal supporters. When the Indian national anthem was sung, we were intimidated to hear the roar of the crowd at the end. But all non-Indians supported us in that game because people wanted an upset. People love the way we play and they wanted us to get to the finals, everyone except a billion Indians. That win was very special to all of us," Badree says.

Samuel Badree was part of the West Indies team that defeated favourites India and went on to win the World T20. Getty

Samuel Badree was part of the West Indies team that defeated favourites India and went on to win the World T20. Getty

As I talk to various sportspersons about underdogs, the one word that constantly resonates is “passion”.

"We play with passion, we play with big heart. We don't look back, there is just one way - forward," Afghanistan cricketer Gulbadin Naib says. "People give us lot of love, especially in India. It's unbelievable how much the Indian people love Afghanistan.”

Underdogs of cricket, Afghanistan have been starved of opportunities to play in big tournaments and against big teams. You could understand them becoming frustrated with it all, but they have done extremely well to keep their spirits high.

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People's love for underdogs is built on inspiring stories.

The Leicester story is nothing short of inspirational. This was a club that had escaped relegation by the skin of its teeth last season. This was a club that had sacked its manager after his son was embroiled in a sex scandal along with two more players. This was a club which had hired a manager who had never won a major league title, who was always mocked and considered second best. This was a club that was formed with rejects, misfits and players plucked from obscurity. This was a club that had never won the English first division league or an FA Cup. They were in oblivion, having not been in the top flight for 10 years until last season. This was a club whose existence was endangered just over 12 years ago until it was bailed out by a consortium of fans. This was a club (£54.4 m) which cost eight times less than the richest club in England - Manchester City  (£418.8 m), five times less than Arsenal (£251.9 m) and three times less than Tottenham (£161.1m).

"What a great story it is yaar," says former India cricketer Ajit Agarkar, who is an ardent Manchester United fan but wanted Leicester to win rather than any other big guns. "Throughout the season you kept thinking they will slip-up but they didn't. It's an amazing story, not just an underdog but an underdog who deserves to win," he adds, almost enchanted, yet in disbelief.

Yes, passion is a key driving force but with passion comes hardwork. One of the biggest secrets behind Leicester's success was the manager instilling a hard-working culture.

“We do not dream. We simply work hard," was manager Claudio Ranieri's mantra.

With very little available, you have to make the most of what you have - and that means working harder than anyone else.

"We try hard; we work hard, more and more. It's not easy to give a tough time to big countries," says Afghanistan’s Naib. "Inshallah! we can improve more and more and may be in 4-5 years we can be in top 5 teams in the world." Despite all the obstacles in his way, Naib still exudes positivity.

Players like Agarkar, Kaif and Badree have been a part of an unfancied team or played underdog roles at some point. Agarkar explains through experience about the most crucial part of being an underdog - the quantum of the challenge - which amplifies their drive to succeed.

"It was tougher [against big teams] so it actually made you work even harder, drive yourself even more," says Agarkar. “It's a fact there are times when the team you are playing against is in everyway - on paper or form-wise - better than you. So it just makes you try that much harder, not that you try any less otherwise. But that determination to succeed at that point is X percent more," he adds.

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The last couple of years have been filled with fascinating underdog stories - Atletico Madrid winning the Spanish La Liga. New Zealand reaching the cricket World Cup final. Japan shocking South Africa in Rugby World Cup. 102-ranked Dustin Brown beating former world No 1 Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. 32-year-old unseeded Roberta Vinci upsetting Serena Williams in US Open semi-final. Afghanistan pulling off a stunning win over West Indies at the WorldT20.

It's not just the fans that feel the joy of watching these underdogs win. Even the players and coaches go through the emotions.

"When I am not playing for my team, I root for underdogs," says Kaif. "Being a sportsperson, you want to watch a contest. Fans also want to watch a contest. There is no point in going there, watching your role models and coming back. It's all about sportsman spirit. You want a fight, you want to see close matches, that's the instinct being a sportsperson. Underdog stories of the past give you hope," he adds.

At the start of March, West Brom manager Tony Pulis declared his new-found love for Leicester after a 2-2 draw at the King Power stadium. Even Chelsea players sounded a warning to Tottenham Hotspur that they wanted Leicester to win ahead of their crucial clash at Stamford Bridge.

"I just hope Leicester City win the league," Pulis had said.

"I always support the underdogs because I love to see the emotions that are evoked when the underdogs win," says Badree. "If the favorites win it’s like okay, we expected that. When the underdog wins however, everyone is happy and feels proud even if there is no association with that team”.

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Such is the joy of watching underdogs win that it might force you to transcend boundaries. In a stunning statement to Sky Sports, Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny, currently on season-long loan to Roma, admitted he wanted Ranieri's side to win and not Arsenal even when the North London club were in the title race.

Just like the Ivanisevic fairytale, the underdog stories have changed perceptions of many.

"The victory of Ireland over England at the 2011 Cricket World Cup was the moment that will stay with me forever," says Peter Miller, cricket writer and author based in England. "This was my team losing to a lowly neighbour and the joy of the innings that Kevin O'Brien played, made me stop caring about supporting my team and want nothing more than an Irish win.”

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It's not just about the underdog stories but also about how they have been scripted that matters. Leicester manager Ranieri instilled discipline and balance into the squad. He changed the formation to 4-4-2, a more attacking one. He harnessed the potential of each and every individual and moulded this group into a cohesive unit.

The entire story was scripted on a positive brand of football and that's what appeals to every player, coach and fan.

"I obviously have a soft corner for the underdogs but it also comes down to the brand of football," former India footballer Bhaichung Bhutia tells FirstPost. "Most of the times underdogs go into a game with a mindset of not to lose and play negative football. From a neutral's point of view, you would want to watch a good brand of football. Leicester have played positive football throughout, they were fun to watch and that is why theirs is a fantastic story," Bhutia adds.

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Just over a month ago, Afghanistan stunned West Indies, who would then go on to win the title, in the World T20 group stages. The victory was sweet but what brought a smile to the faces of many was the sight of West Indies player Chris Gayle joining the Afghanistan players in celebrations, clicking selfies and dancing to the tunes of the now famous Champion song even in the face of a defeat.

Chris Gayle congratulated Afghanistan after their win over West Indies in the World T20. AFP

Chris Gayle congratulated Afghanistan after their win over West Indies in the World T20. AFP

Afghanistan was a team formed in a war-torn country. This was a team whose players grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan with fears of missiles and bombs on either side of the border dominating their daily lives. This was a team bereft of opportunities and funding. But the passion with which they played the game was like a journey back to the old days, when people played cricket not for money but just for the love of the game.

"We decided to celebrate with the Afghanistan team because we love the way they play and the added fact that they are an associate team," says Badree. "There has been much talk about their participation in future events so we decided to support them in that regard. We were disappointed with the loss but it happens. It made no sense sulking over it. It was a great gesture by Chris Gayle to dance with them after the game but I hasten to add, he had some choice words for us when we got to the dressing room," Badree adds.

"That was very nice of West Indies. They were very friendly. They wanted us to win more matches," says Afghanistan all-rounder Samiullah Shenwari. "Each and every West Indies player supported us, they said you are a very good team and just need more good cricket under your belt. You guys beat us; you can beat any big team. Everyone was happy. They never thought that we lost to Afghanistan. The West Indies players invited us to play in the Caribbean Premier League that was a great moment for us. Even the Indian players support us on the field." Shenwari adds.

There was innocence. There was thrill. There was craving. There was excitement and there was pain in their voices as Shenwari and Naib recited stories of love of gargantuan proportions they've received all over the world. And this is what acts as a driving force amidst adversity.

"When we played against England in World T20, there were many Indians supporting us. The day after, we saw interviews of people supporting us, on news channels and those scenes made us really happy," says Shenwari.

"We get maximum messages from people and fans outside Afghanistan, they tell us to just go out there and win, they say - we know you can beat any full member team in the world," Shenwari adds

"It gives us a lot of energy. Even during the 2015 cricket World Cup, the Australian and New Zealand fans gave us a lot of love. They gave us a lot of energy. Too much love. I have no words to explain," a thrilled Naib says.

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What Leicester has achieved is extra-ordinary. From rags to riches, it's the sustained excellence for a period of nine months and 38 matches that makes it even more fascinating.

There were 26 players, 26 different brains, but one heart. There was breathtaking, smart and intelligent football. There were fans applauding an opposition's goal just to motivate the home team. There was the club treating its fans to free beer and doughnuts on the owner's birthday. There was a manager offering his players pizzas for clean sheet.

Under Claudio Ranieri, Leicester City became the unlikeliest of Premier League champions. Getty

Under Claudio Ranieri, Leicester City became the unlikeliest of Premier League champions. Getty

There was the manager ringing imaginary bells for a wake-up call to his players. There was the much maligned manager writing an emotional blog with history in his sights. There was a title in hand with two games to spare after spectacular rise from the ashes. Then there were tears all around... tears of joy. This is the story of Leicester City, this is the greatest underdog story of the modern era and if this doesn't bring a smile to your face, then ‘dilly-ding dilly-dong’, nothing will.

Published Date: May 10, 2016 | Updated Date: May 12, 2016



Rank Team Points Rating
1 India 4493 125
2 South Africa 3395 110
3 England 4097 105
4 Australia 3087 100
5 New Zealand 3114 97
Rank Team Points Rating
1 South Africa 5957 119
2 Australia 5505 117
3 India 4579 114
4 England 5645 113
5 New Zealand 5123 111
Rank Team Points Rating
1 New Zealand 1625 125
2 England 1962 123
3 Pakistan 2417 121
4 West Indies 2222 117
5 India 2183 115