Heart Of Football

Back to the future as fleeting success ends

Leicester's fairy tale is once in a lifetime - the norm is minnows scrapping for the leftovers

Being a man of Leicestershire, 'tis too much to hope for a repeat of yesteryear.

In fact, the Fox has bolted. Leicester City, my boyhood team, are in retreat after becoming the world's team for last season, the longest shot to win England's big-monied, global Premier League in history.

If there is a wish for the New Year, the year of the Rooster apparently, it is that the Thai owners of Leicester resist the daftest calls of the century - from fans calling for Claudio Ranieri to be sacked.

Truly, it is happening. Not just the hair-trigger fickle fans on social media, but callers to the BBC. They don't blame Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez for going Awol after their season of fame. They don't admit that losing N'Golo Kante to Chelsea transferred some of the essence of Leicester's manic work rate to the new leaders of the EPL.

Those are just facts of life. The Vardy Hollywood movie and the Mahrez elevation to almost Ronaldo and Messi status in player of the year polls are transient. The high pressure game that some City players produced last season (managed by the wily silver fox Ranieri) could not be sustained.

Now closer to relegation, though still running in the Champions League, Leicester's goal now is to avoid relegation. And if this is still the situation come March, the outside pressure on the owners will grow to make Ranieri the scapegoat.

It is a local story, yet a universal one. Players for whatever reason don't perform, so sack the manager.

Some emerging stars might be Gabriel Jesus, the new Brazilian goal-scorer at Manchester City, Naby Keita, the dynamic midfielder of Leipzig and Moise Kean, the thrilling 16-year-old Italian forward at Juventus. Rob Hughes

In this case, knowing the pride that is in Ranieri, it would be no great shock if he resigned from his post and is picked up by some other struggling team - Peter Lim's Valencia might be reminded that Ranieri has been coach there twice, the second time in 2004-05 following the departure of Rafa Benitez to Liverpool after Valencia were crowned the Spanish league champions.

But that is history, and the last thing one would wish for 2017 is for Leicester to disintegrate further.

Incidentally, one of the troubled teams below Leicester at this time is Swansea. The ludicrous hiring and firing of the American coach (by Swansea's new American majority shareholders) shows how clueless some overseas buyers are about football.

And the Swansea folk deserve better because, remember, it was they who put their hands in their pockets and saved the Swans from liquidation, and still have a Supporters Trust member on the board under which Swansea, playing good football, rose all the way back from the lowest tier to spend the last six seasons in the Premier League.

So, if my wish list is not for Leicester to drop, and not Swansea either, there are bound to be fans among you who have a soft spot for the other candidates - Hull, Sunderland (eternal strugglers), Burnley, Crystal Palace etc.

Somebody has to fall, and the game of speculation can become self-fulfilling once the momentum of failure sets in.

In the meantime, less a wish and more a foreboding, who or what will correct the listing ship Fifa this year?

Alas Gianni Infantino, the Swiss lawyer who rose to the seat of the deposed Sepp Blatter, has a track record of putting money before all else at Uefa.

True to form, he won the Fifa presidency by promising more money, more games, more of everything to the federations, great and small. On Jan 9, the Infantino panacea for a world governing body, so discredited it is the hands of American lawyers, is put to the vote.

He proposes expanding the World Cup Finals from 32 teams to as many as 48. Europe's major clubs, who employ two-thirds of the best players, are livid.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Bayern Munich and co-incidentally leader of the European Club Association, implores Fifa to put the sport back in focus and play down the politics and commerce. He might be whistling in the wind.

Hans-Joachim Watzke, the chief executive of Borussia Dortmund, calls a 48-nation World Cup "complete insanity".

Infantino scoffs and says he is building a "football-centric organisation that is focused on the future". The new president insists he is listening to the federations, and they endorse his bold plan in their droves.

You bet they do. For the top nations, an enlarged World Cup means they can hardly fail to go further in the Finals (provided there aren't too many early upsets, of course). For the minnows, it is the stuff of dreams, and the opportunity to get their hands on a greater share of cash.

Isn't that where Fifa corrupted itself in the first place? Can no one see what is coming in Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 without wishing to expand and enlarge the money-raking?

This year starts with an Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon that will return such stars as Manchester United's Ivory Coast defender Eric Bailly to Africa for up to six weeks.

United can cope. They have the financial resources to spend on record signings. But whether it is a wish or a reality, United's manager Jose Mourinho is, like all the rest, staring up the league table to his old club Chelsea.

The Blues, under the remarkable Antonio Conte, have broken the Chelsea record of wins - while the Italian is still learning the language and the culture of the EPL.

Elsewhere, either Real Madrid or Barcelona will win La Liga. Probably Bayern, despite the refreshing upstart RB Leipzig, will dominate the Bundesliga. And The Old Lady, Juventus, will likely hold on to her Serie A crown.

Leicesters don't come around very often - and when they do, the Leipzig story is laden with money from Red Bull, the Austrian drinks company that fuels a Formula 1 team and football clubs in Salzburg, Sao Paolo and New York. Could 2017 be the year that Red Bull makes a move for an English club too?

Some emerging stars might be Gabriel Jesus, the new Brazilian goal-scorer at Manchester City, Naby Keita, the dynamic midfielder of Leipzig and Moise Kean, the thrilling 16-year-old Italian forward at Juventus.

We wish them well. Also to Chan Lay Hoon. Valencia's president didn't hide. She apologised to the fans for the wretched 12 months the club gave them and pledged to right the wrongs.

Despite her fronting up, on video, the New York Times presumed her to be male.

Stereotyping is another thing that needs to change in the coming year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline 'Back to the future as fleeting success ends'. Print Edition | Subscribe