“Ballon d’ or? A bunch of journalists and people voting for their friend……………………….. Let this be clear, I cannot take this Fifa award seriously anymore.” – This is not my quote, rather one from a legend who redefined football and himself won 3 Ballon d’ ors- yes, late Johan Cruyff. The Ballon d’ or and the FIFA Annual Awards is a separate entity again but the message remains the same. The main target of Cruyff’s comment was the FIFA Men’s Player of the Year where his Barcelona root too was a small factor behind the comment (Yes, you guessed it, it came after a Cristiano win) . Controversies, arguments and counter-arguments will always be there on quotes like this but when somebody of his stature makes himself this clear – we are bound to sit up and take notice. That debate is for some other day however, maybe. Fortunately for football fans, there is still some not-so-glamourous award in the FIFA Annual Gala and the Manager of the Year Award for Men’s Football is probably the best of the rest. Since its inception in 2010, there have been six different winners in six years. The best thing about this award is the unpredictability here, unlike the Player of the Year Award. And the 2016 version may just happen to be the most closely competed one ever. Before we go into the details, nothing is stopping us from taking a peek at the three-man shortlist.
Claudio Ranieri (Italy) – Leicester City
Fernando Santos (Portugal) – Portugal
Zinedine Zidane (France) – Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo is almost certain to walk away with another Player of the Year trophy on the night of 9th January. And both Santos and Zidane has played a huge part in that almost-confirmed win. Neither of them, however, is as lucky as their student to be branded as “Runaway winner”. Nor is Ranieri. In fact, their achievements are so evenly matched that most of the football fans will probably be in favour of announcing all three of them as joint winners.
But yes, awards being awards have to be given and I won’t be surprised if just one percentage of vote separates the winner from the first runner up or so. So, let’s just try to look at the trio’s journey throughout the year and what brought them here. In this installment, we look exclusively at Ranieri’s 2016. You can find the other parts on Zidane and Santos here.
There is nothing to be said about this man. As Eden Hazard dribbled past three Spurs players and somehow squeezed out a pass only to get it back and fired a first time exquisite curler into the top corner, Stamford Bridge went crazy. The city of leicester went crazier, thanks to a man who started from zero with a depleted squad rocked by the controversial sacking of Pearson. From there, going on to build a squad that will eventually conquer England – sounds a bit too much even for a Hollywood action thriller. But Ranieri showed the world what a bright football mind combined with dedication and teamwork can do.
Leicester became particularly famous for their lightning-fast counter attacks : Jamie Vardy’s crazy wondergoal may have entirely been down to his own brilliance but it will be foolish to ignore the movement before the goal – winning the physical battle, the pass and also the follow-up which ultimately was not required. But it will serve as the shortest summary of Liverpool’s season. Incredible work rate, Good Physical play, Defending in numbers, fast counterattacks and clinical finishing. And it was Ranieri who drew the pattern and formulated the formula to win one of the toughest leagues of the world. The presence of some brilliant players did help but in a season in which Chelsea and Liverpool finished at 10th and 8th position respectively, a bulk of the credit should be given to the man who made them play as a team. The tactical expertise in every match was specially on full display after Leicester managed to get a lead.
They held off the opposition attack for the rest of the match with chillingly cold confidence. That sort of confidence can come only from experience and the source of the experience is anybody’s guess.
The same confidence showed throughout Leicester’s maiden appearance in Uefa Champions League too. They won 4 of their 6 group stage matches and went unbeaten for the first 5. Not only that, Leicester City made Champions League history as they became the first side to keep a clean sheet in each of their first four games in UCL. These achievements came in a weak group having Porto and Club brugge but no European achievement is small enough to be ignored.
Just ahead of the opening match of the 2016–17 season, Ranieri cautioned against excessive hope of City retaining the title arguing that the other clubs now understood Leicester’s break tactics. His principle objective, as last season, was to avoid relegation. And he could not have been more right. Leicester struggled in the league at the initial stage of the season. Losing their most important player N’ Golo Kante to Chelsea did not help either. Apart from a stunning victory against Manchester City, it has mostly been a forgettable season for them, currently lying at the 15th position, 6 points clear of the danger zone.
Whatever happens to Leicester City this season, that won’t alter the fact that what Ranieri and co. achieved in 2015-16 was unimaginable and it will be up there with the greatest victories ever seen by the game. In guiding the Foxes to their maiden EPL title, Ranieri has set an example for the apparently small teams who dare to dream. Leicester’s triumph may be like an island but the many wins they will inspire the world to will constitute a continent. In a few more hours, the FIFA Best Awards will be out and we have no idea who the winner is going to be but if it was Decided by the TBFP team, there is no doubt regarding the final outcome. Congrats Mr. Claudio Ranieri in advance – it was your 2016 and best of luck for the rest of the season.