Leicester success gives hope to the world’s bottom-feeders
Italian strugglers Udinese are among Europe’s smaller clubs inspired by the Foxes’ Premier League triumph
You try to find words for what Leicester City have done in winning the English Premier League title this past week and none suffice.
The 5,000-1 shot came in and while the history of sports is rife with great upsets, they were mostly a single game or match. This was a championship won over a 38-match schedule in the world’s most popular professional league, one that has basically been the sole domain of mega-rich clubs and global icons like Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City the past 24 years.
The Foxes were founded 132 years ago and in that time the highest they ever finished in the top-flight was second in 1929. One year ago they needed a miraculous finish, winning seven of their final nine games, to avoid relegation.
And now this indescribable season, one that is without question the single most remarkable and unlikeliest season in the history of global professional sport.
In the end there may be only one word that is truly apropos of what Leicester City has done: inspirational. Every single underdog player and every single underdog team from tykes to professionals the world over regardless of the sport has taken notice.
The reverberations of this inspiring championship have gone global and reached some of the darkest precincts in the sporting world, most notably a damp corner of northern Italy where the weather is as dreary as the fortunes of the local football club.
The Udine region annually records the highest amount of rainfall in Italy. But the people in Udine are far from all wet. They are warm and unpretentious with a welcoming and reassuring manner, and all of this is in spite of paying witness to some pretty woeful football over the years. Udinese Calcio is the second oldest club in Italy, founded in 1896, and they are still waiting for their first top-level championship.
On the same weekend that Leicester City were looking to capture a historic title, Udinese hosted Torino in desperate need of a win to avoid relegation. However, the miracle that is Leicester City was not lost on some of the fans attending the match at Stadio Friuli.
According to local resident and the co-ordinator of Udine’s Far East Film Festival Thomas Bertacche, hope now springs eternal for long-suffering fans.
“I think fans of small clubs all over Europe now feel the same way,” he says. “The big clubs have the spending power and have dominated football in Italy and all over Europe and this just shows what can be achieved. We might be struggling this season but we will never give up hope.”
Hong Kong cinema legend Sammo Hung Kam-bo and Japanese film star Ryuhei Matsuda, who both had movies showing in the festival, came along to the match and were presented with monogrammed Udinese jerseys. It was a bit of glamour for a team that seems to be lacking in it.
“Football clubs are more like a big family,” says Hung, revelling in the intimate atmosphere. “It’s a game that brings people together and gives them something to look forward to each week.”
The population of Udinese is 100,000 and the football stadium, which is usually full, has a capacity of 25,144. In a show of local love and family pride, close to a quarter of the city’s population comes out 19 times a year to watch their beloved team.
The next day Italian football giants Juventus will clinch their 32nd league title and it’s a fact not lost on the good people of Udine. They know the numbers; they know that by the laws of probability it’s virtually certain none of them will see a Udinese championship in their lifetime.
But Leicester City have just dramatically redefined the laws of probability, so on this day they are a spirited group nonetheless, even when visitors Torino batter them 5-1. With two matches remaining, Udinese are three points clear of relegation and the only thing that matters right now is staying up with the big boys next year.
Teams like Udinese and Leicester, and many of the small clubs internationally, have traditionally been little more than feeders. Their role was to continue to tee up young talent for the bigger, more opulent clubs to buy. Success was relative; avoid relegation and it has been a good year.
The hangman has been cheated once again. But Leicester City have miraculously flipped the script. A feeder is now getting fed and sport, in fact life, will simply never be the same.