The excitable minority of Leicester fans who have called for Claudio Ranieri’s head are presumably unavailable for comment after their manager was anointed world coach of the year on a night when Cristiano Ronaldo beat the absent Lionel Messi to the best player title.
Just as Leicester’s Premier League triumph had the feel of unrepeatable magic, so we may never again see Fifa’s Best Men’s Coach award go to a manager in 15thplace in a table.
Leicester have won only five of their 20 league fixtures since storming the palace at odds of 5,000-1. But their championship win was the only true miracle on a short-list that also included Fernando Santo’s Euro 2016 victory with Portugal and Zinedine Zidane winning the Champions League with Real Madrid. Not long after Leicester had drawn Derby County in the fourth-round of the FA Cup, Ranieri left this industrial venue on the outskirts of snowy Zurich as the king of his profession, but facing a potential relegation struggle back in England.
In front of him on the green carpet (all part of Fifa’s extensive post-Sepp Blatter rebranding) was Zidane, who drew screams from the young Swiss crowd, huddled in the cold. Ranieri followed without fanfare. But despite his self-effacing reaction – “I feel like a legend too tonight, just for one night” – Ranieri said he was optimistic about the second half of Leicester’s season.
“I felt something different over the Christmas days, and I think we are ready to go back up the table and fight more, more and more,” he said. Among his supporters in the poll were Wayne Rooney, the England captain, who nominated Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp in third place (a bold move for a Manchester United player). Gareth Southgate, the England coach, left Messi out of his top three players, picking Ronaldo, Antoine Griezmann and N’Golo Kante.
On stage, Ranieri was true to the modesty that served him well on the championship run-in. “I’m crazy now, I’m very crazy [with disbelief],” he told a worldwide audience who have retuned to watching England’s great powers fight for the title. “My players: without them it’s difficult to win something. Also the fans,” Ranieri said. “It was something strange. The god off football said Leicester must win.”
Leicester’s leader left others to parade their fame. Chiefly, Ronaldo, who teased Barcelona for pulling all their players out on the morning of the event. “I’m sorry some people from Barcelona won’t be here, but that’s understandable,” he said with a grin. What could he mean?
Messi had already lost the Ballon d’Or to his great rival and was second-favourite in this revamped Fifa ceremony. The two have dominated world football awards since 2008 but Ronaldo is on top this year after his Euro 2016 and Champions League wins.
On the morning of the gathering, Barcelona released a statement saying: “With the aim of prioritising preparations for Wednesday’s game against Athletic Club, FC Barcelona have decided that the players recognised in the Gala The Best FIFA Awards will not be travelling to Switzerland for the ceremony.”
Thus Messi, Andres Iniesta, Neymar and Luis Suarez were all missing when a World 11 containing 10 Real Madrid and Barcelona players (plus Manuel Neuer) took to the stage.
The withdrawal drew fire from Roberto Carlos, the former Real Madrid left-back, who said: “It’s a little bit strange that Barcelona haven’t appeared for a gala of this importance. It’s something strange, but us, we’re here and let’s represent football. “Real Madrid, based on the season they’ve had, are considered the best team in the world, with a great squad. Credit to Zizou and the players. The truth is that it’s a bit sad that Barcelona haven’t come. Sport is a thing that’s so important, it creates a certain sadness not to have the great players from Barcelona here. Real Madrid is a footballing reference – that’s why we’re here. “The most interesting thing from a ceremony like this is the players. Cristiano, I believe has learned, and I think Leo, will also learn, that he must be here. This will change.”
Barcelona have won only 10 of their 17 La Liga games this season: their worst run since 2007/08. So their absence was partly explained by concern over Real Madrid’s strength at the top. Ronaldo was not shy about it either. He called 2016 “the best year of my career,” adding: “I had a lot of doubts but after I won what I did I had no doubts I would be able to get it [world player of the year]. It was a year that was magnificent at a sports level and a personal level. I will never forget this magnificent year. “I don’t really have anything to say because awards speak for themselves.”
Ranieri’s award was a glint of light for the Premier League, which failed to provide a single player of any nationality for the World XI, despite English and Welsh clubs supplying a record 1,884 votes. Paul Pogba missed a midfield spot by two. The only Englishman on the 55-man longlist was Jamie Vardy, who was mostly innocuous for Leicester in the first half of their campaign.
But at least Vardy’s manager, Ranieri, was able to reach back into Leicester’s iconoclastic run to the title and see the permanence of that feat. His reward: Chelsea’s visit, on Saturday. No wonder he rushed off.