By Bisi Daniels, Guest Columnist
OGA Mike, when I called on Tuesday morning I knew I was going to ask for the impossible. As it is the practice in journalism, the beautiful Leicester City story had already been written in most newsrooms before Monday night when Tottenham Hotspur fumbled in a dramatic 2-2 draw.
You would have written or you were to write your sermon on this sweet subject when I called but you obliged me the space. Thanks.
Story like this, where one has to navigate a maze to find the true hero is always captivating for any writer.
In the predictable, cliché-ridden world of journalism, if Tottenham Hotspur (commonly referred to as Spurs) had won on Monday, they would only have drawn a headline like “Spurs postpone Leicester’s celebration”, same credit Manchester United got last Saturday for holding Leicester to 1-1 draw at the former theatre of dreams (emphasis mine).
`It is an irony indeed! When Chelsea played the new champions last year, just one Chelsea player, Diego Costa, was worth more than all eleven of Leicester’s players on the pitch—their top player James Vardy was worth only $1.5m then as against Costa’s over $50m. But they tore Chelsea apart.
The most recent published figures for Premier League wages come from the 2015 Annual Review of Football Finance, published by Deloitte’s Sports Business Group. They relate to the 2013-14 season, when Leicester (as well as Watford and Bournemouth) were Championship clubs, but not much changed for Leicester until recently. Man Utd £220m. Man City £205m. Chelsea £191m. Arsenal £166m. Liverpool £144m. Tottenham £105m. Newcastle £78m. Sunderland £70m. Aston Villa £69m. Everton £69m. West Brom £65m. West Ham £64m. Swansea £63m. Southampton £63m. Stoke £61m. Norwich £54m. Palace £46m. Leicester £36m (now 57). Bournemouth £17m. Watford £12m.
Manchester United’s wage bill in the last two seasons is said to be higher than Leicester’s in the entire history of the club founded in 1884.
In my novel, Conspiracy of Lagos, I illustrated the unfairness of life with the expectation of small clubs run on shoe-string budgets, to beat big clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and its rival Manchester City, but in this rare case that has drawn hope for the poor man, expectations have been turned on the head.
It also queries the penchant for teams to buy outstanding players from other teams, rather than growing their own timber.
I think there is a lot more than big money in victories of football teams. Mike, see another case in the success of Athletico Madrid this season. From unsung players the big money clubs wouldn’t have considered buying, they have reached the Champions League final after beating Barca and Bayern in quick succession.
Although they at times play rough football, and their coach, Simeone is temperamental (I don’t like it that he slapped his own club official during their match with Bayern on Tuesday) he has rebuilt a formidable team after losing big names in transfers. Fernando Toress who was a flop in England, is back in top form under Simeone.
Teams like Manchester United and Arsenal have all the money, but their coaches, feeding on historical glory are ineffective.
Mike, for me as a creative writer, the beauty of the story, as I said, is the difficulty of locating the hero of this success story. Is it the coach who had not won any trophy in many years, top goal poacher Jamie Vardy, who was named footballer of the year last week, the mastermind of many of the club’s goals Riyad Mahrez, the die-hard supporters of the club or the Thai monks, who are claiming credit for the feat? Each of them inspires enough amazement.
At the beginning of the season, the team was 5,000-1 underdogs to win the league. Why not? As at April 7 last year it was at the bottom of the 20-team log. It was a miracle in itself for them to escape relegation. Now, here they are from the flat bottom to the top of the log.
Let’s peel the miracle onion down.
The coach: Appointing a humiliated coach to salvage a club was in itself absurd. The club had sacked manager Nigel Pearson, following a lacklustre performance and, crucially, a scandal involving his son – and first team player – James Pearson in Thailand.
In his place, the club’s Thai owners hired Claudio Ranieri, a grandfather figure who had just overseen a four-game stint in charge of the Greek national team. That adventure in international football had ended in tears, with defeat to the Faroe Islands of all teams!
“I never expected this when I arrived. I’m a pragmatic man, I just wanted to win match after match and help my players to improve week after week. Never did I think too much about where it would take us,” Ranieri said early this week.
He praised the players: “The players have been fantastic. Their focus, their determination, their spirit has made this possible. Every game they fight for each other and I love to see this in my players. They deserve to be champions.”
The team: Football is a team game, and truly it works when all the members work as a team. This was an almost naïve team, purpose-driven and without individual egos. In bigger teams, overpaid and pampered players would have received Ranieri with enough contempt and disobedience to have rendered him with a heavy inferiority complex. As a team, the players were never cowed by the big names of the rich clubs. On and on Leicester demolished them with the provocative bring-it-on challenge. Losing only 3 games is a remarkable feat.
The Monks: Mike, when Chelsea’s decline commenced soon after the club’s doctor was sacked, there was some hush-hush talk about the co-incidence. Of course, it was stupid for anybody to say openly that a spell had been cast on the club.
The team doctor, Gibraltar-born Eva Carneiro had in August 2015 been banned by Jose Mourinho from sitting on the bench on match days. She was accused of unprofessionalism after she treated Eden Hazard on the field late in their 2-2 draw at home to Swansea, leading to Hazard being forced off and putting already 10-man Chelsea down to nine for a short time.
Carneiro subsequently left the team, leaving Chelsea in a sharp decline until the coach was changed.
The fall of the former champions is yet to be adequately explained. In an African village it would have been easily attributed to a spell, but in modern football, although some match scores are difficult to explain, spirituality has no place. At worst, luck or lack of it, have been reasons for some victories and defeats.
However, despite the cauldron of silence over it in the United Kingdom, many people are pushed into suspecting that the Buddhist monks of Thailand have a hand in Leicester’s historic story.
According to reports, the Buddhist monk who had blessed Leicester City’s players and stadium was Tuesday swift to congratulate the Foxes after they sealed one of the biggest sporting shocks in history.
The monk, Phra Prommangkalachan, who had travelled to the once unfashionable Midlands club several times with the club’s billionaire Thai owner, said he prayed all night for a famous Premier League title win.
“I prayed for them from 2am till 4am (local time during the Chelsea- Spurs match)… but the victory does not come from me, it’s from the team and the goodness of the owner,” he told AFP.
Indeed, in Thailand, many people attributed the victory to the supernatural powers of Buddhism in a deeply religious country. “There goes the team that just won the league, the team that got sacred water sprinkled from a Thai temple,” one Huge Boripat wrote in Thai.
Mike, this is the first time in recent times spirituality has been so openly displayed in football.
According to reports, Mike, “When they (Leicester City) were at the bottom of the Premier League, the previous season, Mr Vichai said ‘We do not have enough merit,’” Phra Prommangkalachan told CNN.
“He is a Buddhist who truly believes in good and bad karma.
“So he set about making good karma by building temples and supporting ordained monks both in and out of the country. He was determined to make good karma, and he has become successful.”
Karma is not the only thing that is said to have boosted the players’ performance.
Amulets such as the “unbeatable fabric” — which Phra Prommangkalachan brandished with a flourish, and which resembles a club flag save for the Buddhist inscriptions that decorate it — has also apparently played its part.
While these beliefs may be common practice in Buddhist-worshiping Thailand, Phra Prommangkalachan admits the players were somewhat skeptical at first.
“Well, they’re from a different religion. They’re not Buddhists, therefore for our first meeting they were a bit indifferent.
“But Mr Vichai wanted blessings made for the club and each individual player, so we did the water-blessing with them.
“After a while they conformed to what the club wanted and they liked to perform the blessings which were auspicious and morale-boosting for them.”
Well, Mike, I leave this spiritual aspect for you to treat in your sermon next week. But for sure, Leicester City has dealt football, especially the big, pompous clubs a big lesson.
■ Bisi is a journalist and author of over 15 books, including 7 novels