He for whom the bell dilly-dongs
Claudio Ranieri, who was fired on Thursday, did many surprising things in his time with Leicester City. Most obviously, he led the club to its sole Premier League title. That is, reasonably enough, how soccer culture will remember him. In looking back on his time with club, however, the most remarkable detail is that he lasted longer than the league’s average managerial tenure. In that time—just over a year and a half—he lifted the league trophy, was voted manager of the year, flirted with relegation, and was let go with the Champions League quarterfinals still within reach. He was at once given more rope than your average manager and victimized by an owner’s itchy trigger finger.
It’s hard to remember now, but Ranieri’s career was basically over when he turned up in England in the summer of 2015. He had recently been fired as Greece’s manager after losing a match to the Faroe Islands. “I take full responsibility for the most unfortunate choice of coach,” Helenic Football Federation president Giorgos Sarris confessed, “which has resulted in such a poor image of the national team being put before the fans.” His career had arguably been in decline for more than a decade at that point, ever since he had been replaced by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. The Leicester job was a curious way of prolonging his career, but the end was nevertheless in sight.
Ranieri’s career will henceforth be known for what is, in the grander scheme of things, an aberration. There’s nothing wrong with that: triumph is a generally aberrant sensation. It is, however, worth considering how the man fired by Leicester is fundamentally the same one who arrived fresh off the Faroe Islands loss. Claudio Ranieri is—and has always been—a fundamentally decent and affable man known for tinkering with his lineups when the going got rough. Leicester’s title campaign was very much unlike Ranieri in the sense that he basically fielded the same team week-in and week-out. Beyond that, however, little about the Leicester experience changed him. He was and remains a nice old man. Defining his career by more than a couple years in Leicester is perhaps the best tribute you can pay to Claudio Ranieri.
That is not to say that soccer fans can really be expected to forget about Leicester’s title. The feat reifies so much of what we’d like to believe about ourselves and the world that it will continue to be an outsized presence in our collective consciousness. Leicester City Football Club, one suspects, also succumbed to this romance. Instead of leaving on a high, everyone but N’golo Kante stuck around to continue the fairytale. Jokes about the Champions League notwithstanding, there really was nowhere to go but down.
Once that descent began, there was no real way for things to end well. The values Leicester embodied while winning—loyalty included—are much harder to uphold in the worst of times. It didn’t have to end this way, but it was never going to end as well as the manager being serenaded by Andrea Bocelli in front of adoring home fans. That’s not how the world works. So long as he kept managing, Claudio Ranieri was not going to get the perfect ending he might have deserved. Having been lauded for leading relegation-escapees to the title, he would henceforth be judged as the manager of a title-winning squad. Staving off relegation—even if that was nearer to his squad’s natural level—would again never be satisfying in the same way.
Here, again, it’s helpful to remember that the average manager lasts 1.31 years, which is less time than Ranieri received. In a sense, he was given a chance. The club’s current league position would look a lot better if it weren’t for last season’s heroics, but Ranieri likely would not have lasted as long without last season’s heroics. He can reasonably claim to be both hard done by and incredibly lucky.
None of this should be interpreted as a defense of Leicester’s board. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha made his money operating a string of duty free concessions after being granted an effective monopoly by the king of Thailand. He’s no hero or victim here. It is, moreover, not clear what a new manager can be expected to accomplish in 13 matches without the benefit of any transfers. Leicester’s board may have made the wrong decision, but it’s hard to conceive of any club being emotionally prepared to balance the romantic pull of a shock title win with the pragmatic demands of running a business.
Claudio Ranieri may manage again. He’ll likely do worse than Leicester’s title and better than Greece’s loss to the Faroe Islands. The truth about him, as with most people, lies somewhere between two extremes. That’s why it’s important to recognize that Claudio Ranieri is more than his 20 months in Leicester. The title added some polish to a dignified career, but he is who he’s always been: a charismatic mensch in a sport that has little time for such figures.