Leicester, England — If you ever wonder why English soccer is so popular around the world, despite its lack of recent international success, you should come to Leicester City F.C.’s training ground and meet the team’s manager, Claudio Ranieri.
In the world of soccer, Mr. Ranieri is a legend. He’s just won the Premier League, his first major title, at 64. And he did it with lowly Leicester, which had never won anything in its 132-year history. This time last year, the bookmakers gave the team 5,000-to-1 odds to win the Premier title. They gave Bono a better chance of becoming the next pope.
The Leicester players were a strange mix, a truly European affair — two rejects from Manchester United (Danny Drinkwater and Danny Simpson), two young hopefuls from the French second division (N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez), a Japanese player dropped from the German Bundesliga (Shinji Okazaki), a forward from Argentina (Leonardo Ulloa) and the striker James Vardy, a local boy who’d had a brush with the law and hated training (“The last time I lifted a weight was probably that can of Red Bull the other day,” he once said). Winning an unwinnable game or even two with this bunch is one thing; keeping it up for a whole season, leaving behind powerhouses such as Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United and City, is nothing short of a miracle.
The Premier League has just kicked off, and Leicester, known as the Foxes, lost their first match, against Hull. It’s going to be a long, hard season, as the team will also be playing, for the first time, in Europe’s Champions League. Still, like much of England, Mr. Ranieri is still in thrall over the past season, even though he knows he has another tough one ahead of him. “I’m the underdog. Always will be. And I love it,” he tells me.
We talk at Leicester’s training ground, sitting on two yellow chairs beside the impeccable green pitch, while Mr. Ranieri keeps an anxious eye on the powerful sprinklers that shoot up unpredictably around us. Two hundred yards away, Buddhist monks in orange robes bless the helicopter of the team’s Thai owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, before he takes off. Mr. Ranieri waves at them and shouts: “Hey, over there! Don’t forget to bless my office!” It’s a dreamlike scene. So is Mr. Ranieri’s story.
The son of a butcher in Rome, he used to deliver meat for his father (hence his childhood nickname, Er Fettina, or “Cutlet Boy”). He played, then coached, for many years in Southern Italy, where soccer is a rough affair.
Sitting under the leaden English sky, he recalls those early days. “I’ve coached in Pozzuoli, near Naples, with mobsters behind the bench shouting,” he says. “Now British journalists ask me: ‘Are you feeling the pressure, Mr. Ranieri?’ Pressure? What do they know about pressure?”
Until now, Leicester, a medium-size Midlands city, was not known for anything much. The team’s home, King Power Stadium, is right downtown and the training ground is nearby, nestled among streets of small rowhouses. A sign pleads: “Please drive carefully. This is a residential area.”
Yet this is not Mr. Ranieri’s first experience with British soccer. From 2000 to 2004 he coached Chelsea, reaching the semifinals of the Champions League. He loves it here. “Will you move to one of the great English clubs in the future?” I ask. “This is my great English club. I plan to stay at Leicester until I’m fed up of managing a soccer team.” His contract runs to 2020.
Mr. Ranieri is not only a wise man and a smooth operator, whose fatherly approach works wonders. He’s also living proof that disparate cultures can work well together. A real European, if you like. “I merge English intensity with Italian tactics and teach them to my players. Not too much tactics, otherwise I’d burn them out!” he jokes.
He says that if he’d been eligible he would have voted for Britain to remain in the European Union, but he’s convinced the British will find a way to make Brexit work. “Once they’ve made a decision, they pull together,” he says. And if not? “Well, then we have a problem. In the Premier League, as well. Will we be able to recruit the best European players, as we do now?”
For now, the free flow of players may be working against Mr. Ranieri. The world’s best — and best paid — managers are ready for the fox hunt. The favorite to win this year may be José Mourinho at Manchester United, who just signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, the latter for $115 million, the most expensive transfer in soccer history. Mr. Mourinho, known as the Special One, is boisterous, excitable and self-confident to the point of arrogance. He once dismissed Mr. Ranieri as “an old loser,” but later apologized.
At the time, I wrote that “comparing the two is like comparing Russell Crowe and Hugh Grant — they are so different, it makes no sense.” Mr. Ranieri remembers that. As we say goodbye, he asks politely: “Could I be Russell Crowe?”
You won the Premier League with Leicester City. You can be anything you want, Claudio. Even the Gladiator on the Bench.