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May 2021

Football as Opera, tears all round

Football as Opera, tears all round

By Tim Charlesworth

Last weekend provided us with the moment that posterity might deem to be the iconic moment of the season.  Leicester’s triumph is remarkable in so many ways, but its not easy to pick an on-pitch moment that sums it all up.  There have been a few last minute dramatic goals, and some lovely moments of skill.  

The most memorable goal, however is probably Eden Hazard’s goal against Tottenham that sealed the title for Leicester.  Given that no Leicester players were on the pitch, this probably won’t cut it as posterity’s special moment in the season.  Leicester’s win was a special achievement in a special season.  It needs a magic moment to define the spirit of it all, something like Michael Thomas’ goal or Sergio Aguero’s goal for City in 2012.  

On Saturday, Leicester gave us that defining moment.  It was Leicester’s final home game of the season.  The flag-waving crowd was in party mood.  The stadium was packed long before kick-off, on a perfect sunny day, the like of which only an English spring can produce.  Football is characterised by disappointment and failure.  Most fans don’t win the league, or any other trophy.  In most seasons, three (maximum) sets of fans will experience the joy of a trophy, and three more will experience the crushing pain or relegation.  For the rest, it’s the purgatory of midtabledom.  We all understand disappointment, and we can all relate to teams like Leicester, whose fans are doomed to mostly expect disappointment with very little prospect of the joy side of the equation.

The Leicester fans’ happiness was all the greater for its unexpected nature, and it would be churlish not to share a little of it.  Not only had they won, but they had been spared the nerve-shredding experience of a close finish.  The heroism of it all was personified by 64 year-old Claudio Ranieri, the man who openly wept on the day that Leicester qualified for the Champions League.  

Its worth pausing a little to reflect on Claudio’s story.  A second rate player, he started to make his mark on the game managing lower league teams in Italy in the late 80s, 30 years ago.  He has managed in Spain, Italy, France and England, but never won a league title.  And its not as if he has never managed teams with a chance of winning league titles.  The clubs he has managed include: post-Abramovitch Chelsea; Valencia; Roma; Inter Milan; Juventus and Monaco (during its silly money phase). After being sacked by Monaco in the summer of 2014, he entered the ‘semi-retirement lounge’ of international football with lowly Greece.  They sacked him a few months later, after losing to the Faroe Islands!  It was at this moment that Leicester, having had to sack their manager amidst a minor scandal, turned to Ranieri.  It was clearly a temporary ‘safe hands’ appointment, but it attracted widespread ridicule (mainly thanks to the Faroe Islands incident).  

Expectations were low back in August, when Ranieri began the season as bookies favourite to be the first manager sacked, with his team 5,000-1 outsiders for the title.  It is worth stepping back a moment and considering what 5,000-1 means.  Arsenal were 32-1 to beat Liverpool by two goals in 1989.  That victory was roughly 156 times more likely than Leicester’s.  Greece were 150-1 to win Euro 2004 and Buster Douglas was 42-1 to beat Mike Tyson in 1990.  

Ever since Jose Mourinho took over from Ranieri at Chelsea Mourinho has levelled a barrage of insults in Ranieri’s direction, apparently designed to ensure that Ranieri got no credit for the title that Chelsea won in 2004-5, less than a year after Ranieri left.  The situation was worsened when Ranieri made a bit of a hash of taking over Mourinho’s European Champion team at Inter.  Mourinho laid in again.  His verbal assaults have been characterised by the kind of bullying, hectoring tone that only Mourinho can really perfect.  Ranieri has maintained a dignified silence in response.  In the 2015-16 season, it was Mourinho who got the sack and he was succeeded as champion manager by Ranieri.  Some people are not sad at this twist of fate.

Ranieri behaved in a remarkably un-football-like, gentlemanly manner all season.  He refused to criticise referees, even under the severest of provocation, and never had an unpleasant word to say about any of his rivals (even Mourinho).  He also steadfastly refused to consider the possibility of winning the Premiership, long after such a denial became absurd.  He finally relented after Leicester had qualified for the Champions League and accepted that they were aiming to win.  He didn’t really have any choice.  Because Leicester had already qualified for the Champions League, there was no point even playing their final fixtures unless they were trying to win the league!

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On Saturday he stood beaming and besuited, silver hair glinting in the sunshine, hailed by his adoring crowd.  Who could begrudge him this day?  Next to him stood his friend, opera star, Andrea Bocelli, bedecked in a Leicester shirt.  Ranieri gently raised one hand and the fomenting masses fell silent.  Bocelli proceeded to belt out the Puccini aria, and football anthem, Nessun Dorma.  I defy you to watch this scene without the hairs raising on the back of your neck.  

Of course, those of us of a certain vintage can never forget Nessun Dorma as the theme for the operatic World Cup, Italia ‘90.  It is the scenery for Paul Gascoigne’s tears, sadly prescient of the way that his talent would fritter away from that moment on.  It summons the sadness on Stuart Pearce’s face after he missed his penalty.  Pearce, a deadshot from the penalty spot, looked like a twelve year old boy ready to burst into tears, but desperately hanging on to his daddy’s advice that: ‘big boys don’t cry’.   Diego Maradonna, the ultimate flawed genius, sobbed openly.  Through injury, he had dragged his team almost single-handedly into the final, only to be defeated by a German penalty (something we can all relate to).  Maradonna’s star would never shine again.

1990 represents a magical moment.  Gazza’s tears caught the attention of women and children.    Football was bounding back into the mainstream, after the dark violence-ridden 70s and 80s.  The tragedies of Hillsborough and Valley Parade were behind us.  The past was full of hooligans and quagmire pitches, the future full of all-seater stadia and the shiny Premiership era.  It was the new spring, which led to the summertime in which English football is now basking.  Initially, the choice of Nessun Dorma as a theme tune had seemed to be a crass attempt to overlay football with a touch of culture.  As the tournament unfolded, it seemed the like perfect backdrop to the beautiful game.

But even if you are too young to remember Italia 90, the pure elegance of the music is undeniable.  Nessun Dorma (None shall sleep) is a triumphant and defiant love aria from the Puccini Opera, Turandot.  It is sung by the love-struck Prince who believes his love will conquer all, including the outright hostility of his heart’s desire, Princess Turandot.   It is a curiously good analogy for Leicester’s season.

And all this reminded me of a truism.  Football is opera.  Its full of drama and triumph, rags to riches, triumphs against the odds and fallen giants.  This season has even reminded us of Hillsborough, a genuine tragedy.  It’s a game of rich prima donnas, preening peacocks, Olivier Giroud’s beard and Carlos Valderama’s hair.  The ever changing costumes are full of vibrancy and colour, designed to accentuate the elegant physiques of the ‘players’.  Only in football could the 1991-3 Arsenal away strip be revered for its artistic merit.  Above all it’s a game of song.  

The game’s unofficial anthem, Abide With Me, celebrates the working class origins of the professional game.    Up and down the land, football fans sing their hearts out, remembering fallen heroes like Rocky, the 96 and the victims of the Munch air disaster.  We sing with wit, of Freddie’s red hair, of ‘boring Arsenal’ and Patrick Viera’s country of birth.  Above all, clubs throughout the nation proclaim their side as the ‘greatest team, the world has ever seen’, when only one of them, at best, can be right.  Football is truly operatic, and many thanks to Leicester and Ranieri for reminding us all of that fact.

My own abiding memory of the season will be our home game against Leicester.  This was a cruel game for Leicester.  It was game 26, and people were just beginning to wonder if top of the table Leicester, really could do the impossible.  Third placed Arsenal were the bookies favourites for the title, and the biggest threat to the Leicester dream.  We were emerging from a mid-season trough, caused largely by a string of injuries.  If we could beat Leicester, we would close to within just two points, and Leicester would clearly crumble.  

I watched the game, on a big screen, in a local pub with my seven year old twins.  We sat next to a young couple in Leicester shirts.  The whole thing was an emotional roller coaster.  Leicester led through a dubious goal, and seemed to be closing the match out in the professional and efficient manner of champions, when they were the victims of a harsh red card.  We grabbed the bull by the horns and inexorably pulled ourselves back into it.  

Just when it looked like time would run out, Danny Welbeck scored that fabulous last-gasp winner.  The pub (mostly Arsenal fans) erupted in joy.  It was clearly the turning point.  We were on the way to our first league title in 12 years.  Oh the joy of it!  Only it wasn’t joy for everyone.  My daughter, who is a far superior human being to me, grabbed hold of her leaping father and pointed towards the crestfallen young woman in the Leicester shirt whom she had befriended during the match.  ‘Why is she sad daddy?’ she asked.  

The look on the Leicester fan’s face told me everything.  I had seen Michael Thomas and Alan Sunderland score their goals.  I had watched Liam Brady, Mesut Ozil, Dennis Bergkamp and Rocky play.  I had seen Arsene Wenger’s teams in their pomp, I had seen the Invincibles.  I really wanted Arsenal to be champions, but I didn’t need to see Arsenal win the title in 2015/16.  She deserved to see Leicester win.  She had the grace to smile at my daughter, and to resist the urge to punch me in the face in return for my insincere commiserations, before she trudged forlornly away from the scene of raucous celebrations.  

Its been a terrible season for us in many ways, with the frustration of the last decade threatening to bubble over, but I can’t help smiling when I think how Leicester’s triumph has banished the inconsolable look she wore that day.

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27 comments to Football as Opera, tears all round

  • Tony

    As a life long leicester fan, I just wanted to compliment you on your article which I enjoyed very much. And how does it feel? All very unreal but completely marvellous.

  • Genorm

    What a great piece, Tim: memories, manners and fairness in football. Thanks.

  • Beautifully written and I’m glad that Ranieri got to have the last laugh over JM. He is a gentleman and I have to say I have a soft spot for him. What I would not have given to have seen JM face when he heard that CR had won the league with Leicester City.????

  • norman14

    Maureen might not yet end up at Old Toilet.

    Apparently Sir Purple Nose was seen out to dinner with a certain London club’s Manager earlier this week.

  • SamuelAkinsolaAdebosin

    When are Arsenal going to win the title again? Next season? I think they will win it again if the Boss does the needful for the Gunners in the summer and if necessary in the winter again.

    Danny Welbeck is down for Arsenal and England with a 9 month injury blow. Sorry Danny. I wish you a graceful recovery.

    Who will the Boss get now to replace Danny with? We still have Giroud, Akpom and youthful Willock. And who was that that scored a brace for our Under 21 team yesternight? He should be looked at by the Boss for a 3rd youth striker to be promoted to the senior squad next season.

    The Boss should not worry much about getting a replacement for Welbeck in the interim. One or two of Akpom, Willock and the our Under 21 brace scorer against Aston Villa Under 21 team last night at the Ems should fill the void left behind now by Welbeck.

    What will remain for the Boss to do now in his striker’s dept, will be to sign a top top striker as option and cover to the aging Olivier Giroud.

  • norman14


    That’s a great piece of writing – and I too am pleased that Claudio has joined the elite list of Managers who have won the EPL.

  • Ian Lawrenson

    From a Leicester fan. Thank you Tim. The green-eyed haters are all out at the moment and your article is a breath of fresh air.

  • Robert

    Eloquent. Thank you.

  • Leon

    I guess world football is a bit operatic, but I think of Arsenal as more an art rock band, like Talking Heads or even a Euro avant garde group like Can.
    We make good music

  • omgarsenal

    Beautiful,poetic and heart-rending at the same time…….you are an artist Tim! Are you relate din some oblique way to Wordsworth? 🙂

  • Menace

    Great writing Tim. Claudio Ranieri deserves all the plaudits for his unending genltemanly approach to the game. He was so close with Chelsea only to be robbed by the greed of success. His perseverance has paid off.

  • WalterBroeckx

    Great article Tim. If anyone deserves their moment it are the Leicester supporters who have backed their team in good but mostly bad days (take note asking for change, that is real support!) and also Ranieri who together with Pellegrini have behaved in the most gentleman way of the managers in the PL.

  • goonerwin

    Excellent Article Leicester deserve the title this year the consistency they have shown is remarkable. they can keep the trophy warm for us! with the right signings and we must now sign a striker a midfielder and a top quality defender it will be our season in 2016/2017

  • Tim

    Great article, really enjoyed reading this

  • Josif

    Brilliant piece Tim. 🙂 Football is all about emotions and, I have a feeling, about missed penalties. Italia 90 left me a terrible memory of Dragan Stojkovic pulling his shirt over the head after he hit the bar against Argentina with our first penalty, then Maradona missed a penalty to Tomislav Ivkovic (and lost the bet that had been made when Ivkovic saved his penalty before Italia 90) and Troglio hit the post to hand Yugoslavia a huge advantage but there is a reason why the Argentina goalkeeeper Sergio Goikoetxhea is sometimes mentioned as a man responsible for the disolution of Yugoslavia. Sergio shouldn’t have been on the pitch but for Nery Pumpido’s injury against USSR but he was. He saved penalties to Dragoljub Brnovic and Faruk Hadzibegic to bail out Maradona and Troglio. He was a key of their victory in the semifinal match against Italy (penalties again) and it was only righteous that the man who broke so many hearts of Yugoslavs and Italians on penalties got beaten by a penalty.

    We live in a small world and a football world is not too big either. Take a look at the following story.

    2003-04 – Arsene Wenger makes his best team ever and wins Premier League without a single defeat. Chelsea end up second with Ranieri at helm. Arsenal wrapped up the title with a 2:2 draw at WHL after having a 2:0 lead and completed a season without a defeat with a 2:1 victory against Leicester City at home after falling one behind. Arsenal won 3 out of 5 matches against Chelsea that season even if Chelsea had scored the first goal of the game in three occasions. Ranieri got his first and to this date only victory over Wenger but some might say he denied Le Boss the best chance to fulfill his dream to win Champions League. Ranieri didn’t win CL for himself but perhaps opened the path for Mourinho with a semifinal defeat against Monaco – a club that both Wenger and Ranieri had managed. Mourinho eventually won Champions League and got Ranieri’s job alongside players like Petr Cech who had been scouted by Ranieri and on loan at Rennes. Later that summer, Greece won EURO 2004.

    Twelve seasons later, Ranieri was fired by Greece for failing to beat Faroe Islands and appointed by Leicester City due to off-the-pitch problems of Nigel Pearson. Cech – now a veteran – left Mourinho’s Chelsea, this time for Wenger’s Arsenal. United spent crazy money on a young striker again. Wenger was too good for Ranieri despite Ranieri’s team scoring first in both matches. The champions were once more decided in a Tottenham 2:2 draw in London where the visitors had a 2:0 lead. Again, Leicester took the lead at Arsenal only to lose 2:1.

    However, some things did change. This time it was Ranieri who sacked Mourinho, except he did it like a real knight, on the pitch, with a 2:1 victory. What goes around… Again, Ranieri was second best to Wenger in both of their clashes but still managed to deny him a dream of winning the league after 12 years. He has beaten Wenger’s Arsenal just once in sixteen attempts but he has still managed to break Wenger’s (and our) dream twice.

  • Sanjiv

    Great article Tim, as a lifelong Leicester fan, I really appreciate the fact that there are other fans like us around who are happy to see this journey for what it really was. It’s never been about getting one up on any other team for us. We took each game at a time and never really allowed ourselves to believe it was going to happen, despite what anybody looking from the outside could clearly see. We’ve had so many near misses that we knew it could fall to bits, but it didn’t. Looking forward to a summer when hopefully it will finally sink in:) Thanks again

  • nicky

    Not that long now before one of the most defining Transfer Windows in Arsenal’s recent history is flung open.
    The need to strengthen the team is now accepted by all concerned. The money is available. All that is needed is the will to accept, however reluctantly, in meeting the market value of those we need rather than setting our own valuation on a player and then attempting to negotiate on that basis.
    Our rivals already face reality and we can no longer afford to ignore it and get left further behind.

  • GoingGoingGooner

    So…will Newcastle try against Tottenham? Would love to see some Lilywhite tears!

  • Polo

    Great piece of writing Tim, thank you.

    It’s an amazing story what Leicester had achieved, last season they were fighting against relegation and this season they are Champions. This just show that with the determination, will, team spirit, hard work, and a little bit of luck anything is possible. This is the magic of football, once the players are on the pitch it’s 11 vs 11 and the price paid for each individual player is irrelevant.

    I watched the Leicester celebration and the Sunderland match today and the two contrasting celebration from the fans was amazing to see, Leicester’s was jubilation with surprise while Sunderland was jubilation with relief. Football I just love it!

  • thierryhenry22

    Erm ye. They’re magical. Nothing dubious at all. I am honestly happy for the fans though. Must be amazing, good on them!

  • Crovax

    Fantastic piece, Tim. I have to disagree with “I didn’t need to see Arsenal win in 2015/16”. I always need to see Arsenal win everything – it’s only normal.


    You forget to mention the Yugoslavia-Argentina game’s own Busacca-style refereeing when Roethlisberger sends off Sabanadzovic, giving him two yellows within seven minutes. Argentina (read Maradona) was going to be given all the assistance that day to get past the pesky Yugoslavs, but even that didn’t help them, rather it was our own poor penalty taking that ended up doing it.

  • ARSENAL 13

    Emotions are high in ARSENAL camp now. Which is a good thing. This will only build to make things more sweeter when we win it

    Life is nothing without it. Unless you feel the downs, you’ll never celebrate the ups.

    (that sounded weird, gulp)

  • Anicoll5


  • paul

    thank you for your kind words…really great article 🙂

  • Nnaemeka

    Great piece of writing… artistic, infact. Well done, Tim

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Very nice piece , Tim . Well written and a very touching tribute to the Champions .
    And congrats to the Foxes and Ranieri . Will the Chelsea players be putting out a guard of honour ? I’m sure that the fans will be welcoming him boisterously .
    A friend of mine is a life long and faithful Leicester fan from the early 70s , and I believe that he is overjoyed at the EPL win . He probably still somewhere up in the clouds.

  • Top Guns

    @polo so when do you think we might see the sort of celebrations at Arsenal that you have witnessed this week in Leicester and Sunderland?