Football: Fairy-tale champions

Leicester City's Wes Morgan and Daniel Amartey are mobbed by fans and media crews wielding their cameras for a close-up shot of the freshly-minted Premier League champions. Morgan and his team-mates have captured the imagination of the Leicestershire
Leicester City's Wes Morgan and Daniel Amartey are mobbed by fans and media crews wielding their cameras for a close-up shot of the freshly-minted Premier League champions. Morgan and his team-mates have captured the imagination of the Leicestershire folk and fans worldwide with their triumph. Now all eyes will be on the team to see how they fare next season.PHOTO: REUTERS

Ranieri eyes top 10 after 'unrepeatable' win, as owners vow to keep stars together

LONDON • The cash register at the King Power Stadium worked overtime yesterday. Home team Leicester City were not in action, but it did little to stop the scores of people from flooding the team store and trying to score a key chain, a T-shirt, anything to mark what many feel is the greatest-ever footballing achievement.

Tottenham Hotspur's failure to beat Chelsea on Monday night, settling for a 2-2 draw despite leading 2-0, handed Leicester their first English top-flight title and marked a stunning turnaround. After all, it was around this time last year that the Foxes were bottom of the English Premier League (EPL) before staging their great escape.

These days, there is a much more positive air surrounding Leicester City and many associated with the football club woke up to a new dawn yesterday.

Champions League football awaits next season. Once a club who struggled to hold on to prized assets - among them England international strikers Gary Lineker and Emile Heskey - now the Foxes say the likes of midfielders Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante, striker Jamie Vardy and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who are attracting attention from rival clubs, will not be sold.

Hanging on to these star names will be made easier with a reported windfall of more than US$220 million (S$296 million), with money coming from the EPL's huge television revenues, playing in the Champions League, new sponsorship and higher gate receipts.

This is a club whose previous highest league position was a runners-up spot in 1929, and who have been relegated or promoted 22 times in all.

Too small to stay up, too big to stay down, Leicester are instead the ultimate ballcock team, clunking up and down between the divisions with reassuring regularity, an inbetweener club in a city on the way to somewhere else.

Gianni Infantino, president of football's world body Fifa, said: "It's one of these beautiful football stories that only football can write. This is the magic of football."

But, despite the euphoria of what the club have achieved and the belief that they will continue to be a top force in English football, manager Claudio Ranieri believes the Foxes can only realistically expect a top-10 finish next season.

Yesterday, he described their sensational campaign as "unrepeatable". Asked if Leicester could repeat the feat next season, he told Sky Sports: "No. I think no, but of course we want to continue to build.

"When I came here, the project was to build a very good foundation and slowly, slowly grow up together and in three, four years to fight for the Europa League, then the Champions League.

"This season is out of our project, but our foundations are very, very solid. We know very well we have to fight for 10th position.

"We want to do our best. I'm positive and I want to fight. Yes, a top-10 target, to make a very good campaign in Europe and the Cup and to make sure the season is safe and then something more."

Yet there is no doubt what he and his team have accomplished this season is nothing short of amazing, beating teams not only better-funded and more well-equipped than them, but also doing it with a seemingly outdated 4-4-2 system and a team made up of presumably has-beens and journeymen.

The easiest way into the unlikely Leicester success story is probably through the players themselves, a band of outsiders and left-field punts whose success seems to provide its own lesson in redemptive second chances.

The captain Wes Morgan, the 31-year-old Jamaican international centre-back, was painfully exposed at times last season. Still slow, still bulky, he has been a joy to watch this year, a hugely intelligent defender, able to read and block and intercept with wonderful skill.

Vardy's success is electrifying, a late-career rise from non-league to national team that simply does not happen, cannot happen, has happened. Mahrez, a rakish, mooching, sublimely skilful Algerian, was playing French second division football two years ago, considered too lightweight for the thunder of top-level football. Last week, he was named player of the year in the world's most relentlessly concussive league.

Overseeing this beachcombers' XI is a manager best known before now for coming second. His genius has been to see what he's got, take a deep, fortifying sniff of that burgeoning team spirit and simply let it keep on ticking. It should be said that Leicester are not all unicorns and stardust. This is a tough, gnarly team that can hustle and grapple and work between the lines of the laws.

So seemingly ordinary were the Foxes, ranked 5,000-1 outsiders to win the title at the start of the season, that vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha said to his father Vichai, club chairman and head of the Thai duty-free company King Power, that winning the title "was not what we dared to dream".

"He was already proud of being the owner of an English Premier League team. Now he has owned an English Premier League champion team, he can't be prouder," Aiyawatt said of his father who invested in the club six years ago.

Already fans are relishing the prospect of perhaps welcoming the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, or Lionel Messi and Barcelona, at the King Power Stadium in the Champions League next year.

Interestingly, Real coach Zinedine Zidane is one who refuses to buy into the "miracle" story, insisting instead that Leicester's title was all down to talent and hard work. "Miracles don't exist in football. They have had a phenomenal season. Ranieri has done a phenomenal job," he said.

Few, however are daring to dream of being champions of Europe. But perhaps these fans might want to look to the Nottingham Forest side of 1977-79 for inspiration.

They were the last first-time winners of England's top flight in 1978.

The following year? They added the European crown.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2016, with the headline 'Fairy-tale champions'. Print Edition | Subscribe