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Leicester City FC’s fairy tale turns to dust as Claudio Ranieri is sacked

Even by the standards of modern soccer management mayhem, the vertiginous rise and equally stunning fall of English Premier League team Leicester City coach Claudio Ranieri takes the breath away

football Updated: Feb 24, 2017 12:31 IST
Rory Smith
Rory Smith
New York Times
Leicester City,Leicester City FC,Premier League
Leicester City team takes part in an open-top bus parade through Leicester to celebrate winning the Premier League title on May 16, 2016. Premier League champions Leicester City have sacked manager Claudio Ranieri, the club announced in a statement on February 23, 2017.(AFP)

Claudio Ranieri always said it wasn’t real, that it couldn’t have been real. Leicester City does not win Premier League championships. Players dismissed as write-offs or seen as castoffs do not win Premier League championships, nor do managers in the autumn of their careers, after a lifetime of second best.

It always felt like fantasy, and Ranieri always knew it. He said it through last spring, even as the world fell for Leicester’s impossible story, and he said it all through this bleak winter, too, even though he knew it had happened - he had the winner’s medal and the memories to remind him.

It could not have been real, because it did not feel real in the impatient, unforgiving world of the Premier League. A manager fired less than a year - 298 days, in fact - after winning the first championship in his team’s history, and arguably the most remarkable since the league’s inception, feels real.

This file photo taken on August 13, 2016 shows Leicester City's Italian manager Claudio Ranieri (L) gesturing as he talks with Leicester City's English striker Jamie Vardy (R) on the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Hull City and Leicester City on August 13, 2016. (AFP)

A manager fired less than a month after being told he had the “unwavering support” of his employers feels real; a manager fired because the players he had turned into immortals had decided his powers were no longer enough feels real. Anything, everything, else must be fantasy. Reality, after all, is simply too brutal.

On Wednesday night, Ranieri’s Leicester team lost, 2-1, to Sevilla in the first leg of a Champions League round-of-16 matchup. It is worth pausing to consider that context in full: That is Leicester City, erstwhile of English soccer’s third tier, in the Champions League.

It was another defeat, yes, but it felt different from the others. Jamie Vardy had scored a crucial away goal that gave Leicester hope; Danny Simpson, the defender, suggested that the defiant mood in the locker room had carried with it an echo of the camaraderie of last year.

This picture taken on February 18, 2017 shows Leicester City's Italian manager Claudio Ranieri standing on the touchline during the English FA Cup fifth round football match between Millwall and Leicester City at The Den in south London. (AFP)

On Thursday, after returning to England with his players early in the morning, Ranieri was informed that he was being dismissed. Leicester released a statement a few hours later, praising Ranieri’s “warmth, charm and charisma,” assuring him the team will always be “grateful” for everything he achieved, but making it clear that change was necessary if the team was to avoid relegation. It was delicately phrased and thoughtfully composed: an ornate blade, but a blade nonetheless.

This file photo taken on May 7, 2016 shows Leicester City's Italian manager Claudio Ranieri (C) and Leicester City's English defender Wes Morgan holding up the Premier league trophy after winning the league. (AFP)

On a sporting level, in truth, the team’s decision is hardly unfathomable. Leicester’s play has been dismal. Ranieri has recorded just two wins in the Premier League since November. His team sits just a point above the relegation zone, in immediate and very real danger of becoming the first side to be relegated as a champion since 1938.

On another level, though, it is - as Gary Lineker, a Leicester fan and former player, put it - “gut-wrenchingly sad.” For Ranieri, it is sad because he has been betrayed by his own optimism. In hindsight, it is obvious there was never going to be a happy ending. Leicester had flown too high, had too far to fall. Whatever Ranieri did this season would have felt like an anticlimax.

Claudio Ranieri should have walked

He should have walked, back in May, leaving the stage as soon as the curtain had fallen on the greatest production of the Premier League era: his legend assured and untainted, the ultimate managerial mike drop. That is what happens in fairy tales, after all. The heroes ride off into the sunset, forever pristine. There is never an epilogue about what happened when they got home and had to do the dusting.

For Leicester, it is sad because it lends a sour coda to the sweetest of stories. The club’s owners, the Thai Srivaddhanaprabha family, will be criticized for failing to stand by their man, after all he had done for them, but the players do not deserve to escape censure.

Not because they seemed to have had their edge dulled by success, particularly. As Ranieri said in December, players who react to triumph by seeking more are so rare as to be all but unique. Few on his squad had ever won anything before last year; it is only human to find that intensity draining away.

Less forgivable

Their lack of faith in Ranieri, though, is less forgivable. Earlier this month, Ranieri seemed to admit that he had, perhaps, stood by his players for too long, indulging the stalwarts of the championship victory too many opportunities to recapture their form.

If only that loyalty had been reciprocated. As results started to turn, Leicester’s players started to doubt. Where last season they had admired his tactical subtlety and enjoyed his pep talks, now they were left befuddled and bemused.

He indulged them their poor form; they were not willing to afford him the same courtesy. That, perhaps, explains why heroes tend to make themselves scarce as soon as the job at hand is done.

Beyond that, though, is another sadness, one that spreads beyond Leicester the team and Leicester the city and into the wider world.

What made Leicester so captivating last season - what inspired all of those books, what encouraged producers to start optioning movie rights - was the sense that what the club had achieved was so exceptional.

It felt like an antidote to the iron lore of elite soccer, and not just in England: that it is the expensive stars alone who can bring success, that it is always the big clubs who win in the end, that romance has been hunted to extinction by commerce.

The Leicester magic

Leicester’s magic lay in inverting all of that, in proving that - every so often - a group of unheralded players led by a disregarded manager at an unnoticed club can somehow succeed. It has become a cliche to call Leicester a fairy tale, but that is its precise narrative arc.

With Ranieri’s departure, though, the reverie evaporates, and reality sets in. It was not a fantasy, of course, even if it feels like one, now more than ever. It did actually happen. But that only adds to the sadness, knowing that fantasies do not last, that sometimes, fantasies end like this, the cold, bleak sunlight pouring in.

First Published: Feb 24, 2017 12:31 IST