As the sage once put it, the only constants in life are change and taxes. The spectre of the upset by the underdog has never hang ever so close as to spook out the big guns as it has this year. Indeed, bigger teams have been forced to constantly look over their shoulders more this year than any other year. Still, upset galores have been the order of the day. It is as if both the god of football and goddess of luck have contrived to team up to embarrass the bigger sides. The ball has been having a more awkward bounce than the famed ‘Jabulani’ used to play the world cup in South Africa in the year 2010. It is rumoured that the Jabulani was not the creation of traditional sports ball makers Adidas, Nike or Puma but the handiwork of a famed South African ‘Sangoma’ to facilitate their cause. As such the apparent metaphysical impact of its bounce left many goal keepers in a fix trying to explain how the ball went in. The opening goal scored for that tournament by one Siphiwe Tshabalala occasioning one of the most passionate celebratory dances in football history was revered as work of art by African media but in foreign tabloids particularly Mexican castigated as the product of a dark art. Many a goal keeper received an equivalent of the famed ‘hairdryer’ treatment popularized by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United during the half time pause or post-match for acts that were beyond their control according to them, or so they said.
Fast forward 2016 and similar bounces are creating casualties left right and centre. The slip by Captain Fantastic Stevie G and eventual capitulation by Liverpool in 2014 had been put down as one of the most cataclysmic occurrences by a team on course to a title. However, horror shows requiring the intervention of ICC may have been enacted on the football pitch this year; albeit, for the big teams compared to their less illustrious and more shoe-string funded rivals. Fairytales have been interspersed by horror tales but this depends on which side of the pool you stand. Much as a gentleman in Usenge may celebrate catching a giant Nile perch but on the flipside, the relatives of that colossus of a fish at the bottom of the lake will be in great mourning, shock and consternation ruing their loss.
The first in this sequence is Leicester City. A team that seemed more at home fighting relegation produced the ultimate ‘Cinderella clinches prince charming’ headline after winning the English Premier League. Regarded as the backwater of the EPL, a team that had never lifted the title and whose closest dance with fortune was when they finished 2nd in the Old First Division way back in 1929. The victory was in no small part to the tinker-man; Claudio Ranieri whose best performance was with Chelsea in 2004 when he led them to second behind ‘Les Invincibles’ of Arsene Wenger. This was a man who had seemingly been consigned to the garbage bin of football folklore after an ill-fated Euro 16 qualification campaign with Greece that brought performances not limited to but inclusive of a defeat by Faroe Islands a team composed mainly of College boys and recreational footballers. When he left that post and Leicester seemed to be clasping to him many may have felt this was just going to be the usual below-par season under the tutelage of a failure. His first victories seemed to be flukes but when big guns begun failing in his wake many sat up to take notice. When the first round of 19 matches ended with only one defeat many began dreaming. Not just Ranieri but most of the team was composed of journey men from the more illustrious sides, lower division hustlers and a few novices. In this era of Petro dollars, super-rich club owners bank rolling incredibly loaded teams that are run as conglomerates, lubricated by lucrative TV deals, a story like impecunious Leicester’s seemed most unlikely. It was like the biblical story of the Maccabee Israelites who against all odds and guided by an unseen commander defeated the powerful King Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria and his colossal army. Who would have said that by mid-April Leicester city and Tottenham Hotspurs would’ve confirmed their positions in next season’s Champions League with matches in hand? Tottenham’s equal meteoric rise is cruelly only marred by the fact that they missed out on the league title thanks to the brilliance of the aforementioned opponents. Encomia trickled in from far and wide. Installed at 5000/1 by the bookies to win the league at the start of last season, guess who the joke is on now?
Atletico Madrid making the Finals of Uefa Champions League for the 2nd time in 3 years is an equally heartwarming tale. Giants were slayed enroute to the Holy grail. The only heart-rending anticlimax is the loss to the Great Real Madrid, by far the richest football club and individual sporting entity on earth. Uni-decima achieved. Ideally, the Derby of Madrid is expected to be a lopsided affair. In no uncertain terms Real boasts a squad depth that even superpower armies in the world would be proud of if they had similar fire power. A team assembled at the prize of 560 million pounds plus add-ons, has in the same squad two of the most expensive footballers in the world on the pitch at the same time, one has arguably been either the best or second-best player in the world for the last eight seasons. This Titan comes up against a local rival whose entire squad has been assembled at a cost no less than that of the second most expensive player at Real. Much as they say derbies are most hard-fought, in recent years this one has been the most closely contested. It is a notable surprise that despite the gulf in financial fortunes between the clubs, only a hair line difference has been the margin in contests between these two. It is not to say that Real were ripped off in the purchase of their stars, No! What Zinedine Zidane, a former World Cup & Ballon d’or winner himself has in squad quality is matched by tactical acumen, defensive grit and all-round fighting spirit from the Diego Simeone coached side of town. Nothing like being coached by a former player who encompasses your team’s philosophy mirrored by personal ethos and work ethic. Despite one side being 7 times more expensive than the other, they were tightly poised at 1-1 at the end of both normal time and extra time. Only the lottery of penalties produced the sucker punch that decided the contest. Pretty much like the big bully almost being defeated in a brawl but capitalizing on the slip of the smaller boy to throw sand into his eyes and then land the deciding blow.
Portugal winning Euro 16 has baffled not just many a soccer pundit but also the big guns that expected to win the tournament outright. Not less are Belgium, Germany and the hosts who were the losing finalists France. You tell that to Cristiano Ronaldo. Irreparably injured 25 minutes into the contest and seemingly inconsolable, he went to the touch line to play the role of assistant coach to great effect. At the end of 120 minutes of football you would have been forgiven for thinking Cristiano was a Kindergarten boy who had been mugged off his lunch at the bus station. The unmistakable yell and tears of joy was clear for all to see. Unfortunately, for the opposite No.7 Antoine Griezemann, the lightning of a finals’ loss has struck twice in a month and a half but this time round with the more illustrious side. All the same pat on the back for a veritable performance. For the analysis, how do you reach the Semi finals of a major tournament by drawing all your matches in normal time? Then still have enough in the tank to pip the tournament favourites to the trophy. Defensive strength, excellent counter-attack, tactical acumen, team spirit and Fernando Santos. But after many years of toil, heart break, pain and loss your karma has to turn sooner rather than later. However, the ‘Belo Guttman’ curse for Benfica may take longer to exorcise.
When Iceland stunned world football super power and the progenitors of total football, Netherlands to qualify for Euro 2016 nobody thought much of it at the time. Coming to this tournament as underdogs many thought them the whipping boys of their group. However, the smallest of the countries there by population drew two matches to within an inch of a win before finally putting Austria, a favourite in their group to the sword to against all odds finish 2nd in their group. If you had thought that was a gargantuan feat then your jaws had to be collected from the floor in the last 16 where they stunned perennial contenders – also-rans, England. Unfortunately, their run was brought to a screeching halt in the Quarter finals by a mauling by tournament hosts France. Wales stunned many others but not themselves when they qualified for their first tournament ever since Saint George I was slaying dragons with unfathomable moxie. Unfancied but still gave a good account of themselves qualifying ahead of tournament favourites, the old rival England and Russia. They tore apart surprise package Hungary before putting pre-tournament favourites Belgium to the same sword. Their charge was curtailed only by the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and the good fortune for Luis Nani. They put up a veritable run nonetheless.
The Qualification of Guinea Bissau for Afcon 2017. This occurred majorly to the same effect as a lightning bolt out of clear skies. Prequalification expectation of being the whipping boys rang all around when the draw was made. African giants Zambia, improving Congo and deluded giants Kenya were the other opponents. When they held Zambia to a draw in Ndola, nobody thought much of that. They were next whipped by Congo Brazzaville and everyone thought the writing was on the wall. They then made capital against a disoriented Kenya in March in similar solitary margin home and away wins and a few sat up to take notice. Thanks to a favourable mix of results; when they whipped Zambia 3-2 in Bissau, a miniature tremor was occasioned by the ensuing celebrations. They had against all odds been among the first teams to qualify for African Cup of Nations to be held in 2017 causing a ‘rumble in the jungle’ only similar in magnitude to Mohammed Ali and George Foreman’s gig in DRC back in ‘74.
The name is Jamie. Jamie Vardy. This is not the quintessential line many of you are used to from watching super hero British spy agent movies for many a year. Fast forward, August 2015 and this unassuming 29-year-old was given a similar introduction into our living rooms starring for Leicester City. For 11 straight matches running he scored, many being winning goals. Of course it was not always like this while immured in non-league obscurity at Stockbridge Park Steels, FC Halifax and Fleetwood Town. Here among other pre-match rituals included milking cows, chasing livestock and the ceremonial stray cat/dog off the pitch, the Shirts Vs Skins toss, collecting the referee from the local, convincing Paddy Sluttery, the in-house jester who is also your holding mid that another Gordon Brown tenure is unlikely, posting bail for Jamie Gill, the undefeated brawling champion and weekend jail-bird who despite an electronic tag on the ankle doubles up as your striker, boozing up the community college lasses to convince them to come to watch your match and last but not least the last minute pee in the bush. At 29 and seemingly in the twilight of his nondescript career found himself the spear head at the tip of the Leicester juggernaut that rode roughshod on all and sundry to the league title. Get the job done he did, so much so that he received a maiden call up to the English fold where he continued his stellar form. On the other side of the spectrum but similarly remarkable is Marcus Rashford who was virtually unknown until errors in judgement and preseason departures left Louis van Gaal strikerless after injury to Wayne Rooney. With only Antony Martial around, Rashford was called up to the plate and seize the chance he did. Goals against no less Arsenal, Man City and a few other scalps in FA Cup established Rashford as indispensible upfront. His purple patch in front of goal, poise and speed earned him a call up to the final squad for Euro 16 ahead of seasoned Jermaine Defoe.
The Re-emergence of mother Italia and USA reaching the semis of Copa America Centenario make up the rest of the seemingly improbable footballing feats. USA reaching this point was not exactly a major achievement but when put in the perspective of giants like Brazil and Uruguay going home first round it stands out.
In this era of fairy tales making a re-emergence, nobody is immune to capitulation. The stellar players could tumble at any time. The guys closer to the acme should be prepared to capitalize on such events. I write this as incentive for guys like ‘super Mario’ Ballotelli who aspires to win Balon d’or one day. Pull up your socks son and all the best. Also hoping the chest-thumping ‘ze god of football’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic wins the gong to crown his stellar career.
Dennis Mukoya is a soccer enthusiast and consummate thinker of new solutions
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