Ahead of Leicester City’s game against Watford in November, Claudio Ranieri was asked about facing Quique Sanchez Flores, the man who replaced him at Valencia, and the possibility of this being a ‘bit of revenge’.
With a pantomime villain’s face and voice, Ranieri immediately clutched a mock trident in the air and went, “YEAH BIG REVENGE. I WANT TO KILL HIM”. A moment later, he clarified, “Issa football. Iss just a football. No revenge. He’s a nice man.”
Every time he interacts with the media and is posed one of modern football’s headline-grabbing questions, you get the feeling he is far removed from the chest-thumping, unforgiving nature of the beast. You get no vitriolic headlines from him. Instead, there is an insouciant air, an Ancelotti-like casual reverence for sport (“football is the most important of all less important things in the world”), when he talks of how he has promised his players pizza if they win a game. Oh well.
Over the years, his principles haven’t changed. When Jose Mourinho famously took him to town in 2008, calling him a “70 year old who hasn’t won anything and is too old to change his mentality”, Ranieri stood firm, saying he did not need to win to be sure of himself.
Ironically enough, he was managing Juventus at that time, a side who had, in the aftermath of the massive fixing scam, stitched to their jerseys’ collars, an old dictum from club legend Giampiero Boniperti — “Victory is not important. It is the only thing that matters”.
Most of modern football doesn’t get him, nor his ideals.
Ranieri is a serial victim of the managerial sack race that has come to characterize football this millenium. It is a mentality that pays no heed to the simple fact that there can only be one winner in a season.
Right before coming to Leicester, he was given the sack by Monaco, for getting them promoted from Ligue 2, and following this, achieving an all-time record for the highest points tally for a second placed team in any league. Monaco finished behind Laurent Blanc’s Paris Saint-Germain in their first season back in Ligue 1, following the marquee acquisitions of James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao, Joao Moutinho and Eric Abidal.
The climax? Get outta here, Claudio, because sugar-daddy football knows no such thing as a runner-up. A robotic, corporate press release calling it a “difficult decision” was all he got, from owners whose cold, clinical, return-on-investment calculators had reprimanded his fine achievement and taken him to task.
Over the years, starting right from his playing days, Ranieri’s image has been that of a nearly man, clearly belonging in the “best of the rest” category than among football’s elite. A middling career as a defender spanned multiple promotions from lower tiers, with Catanzaro, Catania and Roma, followed by managerial stints across Europe, smattered with Cup triumphs and jumps up from lower divisions.
Add to this the ignominy of taking Atletico Madrid down from the La Liga back in 1999. This one time, for a change, Ranieri put down his papers before the board got to him with the axe.
It was at the dawn of the new millenium that Ranieri’s career started running into that of nemesis and successor at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho. A rebuilding job well done by the Italian got the Londoners into the Champions League for only the second time in their history, and was immediately followed by acquisition from Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who privately told Ranieri about the perfect cost-benefit business sense that led him to buy the club, than any kind of fandom.
There was talk of how a Champions League clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid got him hooked to football, and how Chelsea’s finances made it a simple buying proposition — an affordable club, but with the prize of the Champions League. In some ways, that description fits Ranieri too — never the headlining act anywhere, just the comforting, curing medicine clubs needed in times of not-so-rude health.
Expectedly, Abramovich sacked him at the end of a season where Chelsea finished second only behind Arsené Wenger’s Invincibles. Chelsea also eliminated Arsenal from the Champions League, which is just a forgotten fact that is a misfit in the Invincibles narrative.
Mourinho inherited the core Ranieri built — Lampard, Terry, Huth, Gallas, Bridge and Makelele — bought a couple more in Drogba and Robben, scouted by his predecessor, won the league title twice and went on to achieve much more in Italy and Spain. Unlike Ranieri, his ruthless mentality and victory-at-all-costs approach blends in perfectly with every other modern day board’s mindset.
Our anachronistic “70 year old”, still only 56 in reality, had meanwhile been sacked by Valencia and Parma, before arriving at Juventus to do battle with Roberto Mancini, and a season later, Mourinho’s Inter at the top of the Serie A table.
Two consecutive seasons. Two heartbreaking second place finishes, after losing the plot in the last seven weeks, sliding down from atop the table. Shunted off to AS Roma, the hometown club he’s supported since he knew about football.
23 consecutive wins there, seated atop the lofty perch of the Serie A. A chance to stop Mourinho again. Slipping up yet again and handing over the treble on a platter. How many more times could he lose to the same man?
Following confirmation of the title travelling back to Milan, his players, grown men all, are in tears in the middle of the pitch. Phillipe Mexes, his burly beast of a centre back, is sobbing. He’s done what his manager asked for — “give it your best”. And this is what it has come to.
A few weeks ago, Jonathan Wilson, editor of football magazine Blizzard, spoke about how Ranieri came to get the “Dead Man Walking” nickname. In 2000, Wilson wrote a piece for the Financial Times, after watching Tom Hanks’ Green Mile a day earlier, comparing the then Chelsea manager with the image from the movie. The press had a great time over the next few weeks, as the sobriquet spread far and wide. Ranieri went on to name his book about those years, Proud Man Walking, quite possibly how he saw it all.
Over a decade later, in 2015, Ranieri is back, inheriting an average yet hungry squad from Nigel Pearson, who has set them off on a run from the relegation zone to a comfortable 14th place by the end of the season. There is considerable resignation about Leicester’s fate, as they embark on yet another middling run, with a manager who does not have the “big club mentality”.
Esteban Cambiasso, Player of the Season, has left the club, to Olympiakos, possibly seeking some silverware towards the twilight of his career. How can it ever be, in the world’s richest league, where a coterie at the top rules the roost? N’Golo Kante is picked up, from lowly Caen in Ligue 1.
Nine months later, Leicester City fans chant “70 percent of the earth is covered by the sea, the rest by Kante”. He is, in microcosm, Leicester’s season. Rank outsider, unrated by the rest. Now, he has a call-up from national side France. Leicester are six games away from a title triumph. Ranieri knows that means nothing. It could all come to nought, come 15 May.
As things stand, though, Leicester’s is both statistically and poetically a compelling story like no other the Premier League has seen over the past two decades. They are seven points ahead of challengers Tottenham, with six games to play. From the first leg of fixtures against the remaining sides, Leicester took 17 out of a possible 18 points, against Tottenham’s six, and Arsenal’s 13 out of 21. Considering they do not run into any of their title challengers, this one seems beyond even Ranieri’s history of botched up title charges.
As he wrote in The Players’ Tribune earlier this week, Leicester’s season can be summarized in a single pep talk, that makes all the more sense in retrospect.
“I want you to play for your teammates. We are a little team, so we have to fight with all our heart, with all our soul. I don’t care the name of the opponent. All I want is for you to fight. If they are better than us, Okay, congratulations. But they have to show us they are better.”
As current standings go, it is indeed down to the challengers to show they are better, along with a fair degree of dependence on Ranieri’s men losing steam, if there is to be a final twist to this incredible season. They have come through their last four games with 1–0 victories, and as that master of the title chase, Sir Alex Ferguson famously said in 2012, “ 1–0 wins mean championship form. I don’t mind the 1–0s, I really don’t because it tells you we are determined, we’re going to defend, do the right things and play as a team.”
Ranieri’s Leicester have been all of that, scraping out wins, one after another, as the yarn seems to wind down towards a fairy tale denouement. On the final match day of the season, they visit Stamford Bridge, to play Chelsea. It is likely that the title would have been pocketed by then, and in a season where Mourinho has left English shores after losing his prized job, there is a genuine possibility of the trophy being given away in Central London. Except, this time it would be the 64-year-old, without the hunger to win, lifting it in the ruthless, thrill-a-minute world of modern day football.
Really, what’s not to like?