On Thursday, 23rd February, 2017 Leicester City Football Club issued a statement on its club website stating that they had parted company with their manager, Claudio Ranieri.
The sacking of Ranieri, less than a couple of months after he won The Best Fifa Men’s Coach award for 2016 has left the entire footballing world in shock, and with good reason.
Two years back, only an ardent football fan would have even heard of Leicester City, and not many really cared. Indeed their sole objective for a Premier League season was to remain in the Premier League next season i.e. not get relegated. Then came the 2015-16 season, and Leicester’s incredible march to the Premier League title. It was one of the all-time great underdog stories in sport. And at the heart of it, was Ranieri. He moulded a relegation fighting squad into a team of champions. Suddenly, the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy seemed like world beaters.
Leicester’s march to the championship captured the imagination of the entire footballing world. Suddenly, everyone cared about Leicester City, everyone wanted to see if they could keep it up, if they could indeed achieve the seemingly impossible. Even when they were in the lead, fans anxiously watched and waited for them to slip up. Because that’s what inevitably happens in stories like this, just ask RB Leipzig. But Ranieri’s men didn’t slip up, and eventually the fairy tale did come true, Leicester were champions. And Ranieri was a hero.
There probably still weren’t many die hard Leicester fans. But you could bet your bottom dollar that most neutrals were leaning heavily towards Leicester. Because it’s stories like this that enthrall us sports fans. It’s moments like Leicester’s title triumph that touch something deep inside us sports fans. And instantly, Ranieri was untouchable, beyond reproach to football fans. Because we are emotionally invested, we followed the title march with passion, we know what a tremendous achievement it was because we were waiting for the inevitable slip week in week out, the slip that never materialized.
And that’s why, his sacking has left all the ardent followers of the game dumbfounded, shocked and with a very bitter taste in their mouths. Because you see, at its heart, sport is a lot about passion, emotion and respect. Probably more so than any other field of life. As a football fan, it’s absolutely natural to assume that what Ranieri achieved with Leicester rendered him untouchable for at least a few seasons to come. That is how sport is supposed to work. Form is temporary, class is permanent! That is a uniquely sporting saying. And without a doubt, Ranieri had shown his class.
So how could someone like Ranieri be sacked a mere 297 days after masterminding the greatest triumph in Leicester City’s history? Well, the reality is that nowadays, many of these decisions aren’t taken by sports men, or even sports enthusiasts, but by businessmen. At least, a large stake in the decision is in the hands of businessmen. And in business, knee-jerk reactions are an important part of the game – something doesn’t seem to be performing as well as it was? Go ahead, change it right now. And that’s exactly what has happened here.
Leicester City is owned by the King Power International Group, which is Thailand’s leading travel retail group. Clearly, they understand business. One wonders about their passion for football, though. Their Vice Chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha stated on their club website, “This has been the most difficult decision we have had to make in nearly seven years since King Power took ownership of Leicester City. But we are duty-bound to put the Club’s long-term interests above all sense of personal sentiment, no matter how strong that might be.”
He also added, “It was never our expectation that the extraordinary feats of last season should be replicated this season. Indeed, survival in the Premier League was our first and only target at the start of the campaign. But we are now faced with a fight to reach that objective and feel a change is necessary to maximise the opportunity presented by the final 13 games.”
Very business-like indeed. And you suspect that that is their attitude towards the club. It is, after all, a business. Most football fans would tell you that a football club is an emotion. Fans invest a lot of emotions in their favourite football clubs. The King Power Group has invested a lot of money in Leicester City F.C. And what they ultimately need is monetary returns. And they’ve got that – a whole lot of it – thanks, to Ranieri’s exploits. But it’s a lot harder to form that emotional connect with the concept of money than it is with the gloriousness of sport. Leicester might not have the biggest fan base going around. But their exploits last season captured the imagination of fans around the world. And now, with one swift move, they’ve gone from everyone’s favourite underdog to being that jerk that annoys everyone. And from the perspective of The King Power Group, that’s just fine. More accurately, it just doesn’t matter. Continued financial returns, on the other hand, do matter very much.
Of course, you can’t blame anyone for trying to do what’s best for business. And staying in the Premier League is of massive financial importance. The thing is, for Leicester City and its fans also, it is of paramount importance. So, that’s a shared goal. But is sacking Ranieri the right way to go about it? Most people who are involved in any way with football will say no, rather vehemently. But who knows, right? Only time will tell. One thing is for certain, though. This has been one of a growing number of examples – especially in football – of business principles eating into sporting values. And the feelings of the average football fan regarding this matter can probably be best summed up by the fact that, when I checked Facebook for the first time this morning, the first story on my news feed was a friend’s status: “Hope you get relegated, Leicester City.”