Features

Sport is a fairytale factory – as Leicester City remind us

Rags to Riches, and other archetypal plots coming soon to a stadium near you

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

It’s one of the oldest stories of them all, deeply embedded in our nature and our culture. In some ways it’s the story that defines our humanity and we have told it a thousand times in a thousand different ways.

It’s in the Bible with Joseph and his coat of many colours, it’s King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, it’s the ugly duckling, Cinderella, Great Expectations, Moll Flanders and Jane Eyre. It’s Clark Kent becoming Superman, it’s Harry Potter leaving the cupboard under the stairs to become the greatest wizard of them all. It’s Rags to Riches. And it’s the tale of Leicester City.

Sport retells all our most ancient and archetype-crammed stories and does so again and again, providing us with a living mythology. It has brought us Rags to Riches times without number: once upon a time there was a little boy from Bowral in Australia. Day after day, he would hit a golf ball against the wall of his house with a cricket stump. His name: Don… Don Bradman.

The greater the odds against success, the greater the story. Rags to Riches is the daily stuff of sport, but no one thought that anything quite this ragged could aspire to — still less claim — such riches. The impossible truth is that Leicester City are on top of the Premier League, five points clear of Tottenham Hotspur in second with four games to go. So close! So far!

The Premier League, which began in 1992, is designed on the traditional rich-get-richer basis. It’s a competition in which a few clubs fight for victory while the rest try to avoid relegation: a carve-up in which oligarchs and sheikhs go chequebook to chequebook. Only five clubs have ever won it.

Could Leicester really make a sixth? Consider some of the obstacles that lie in their way. They went into administration in 2002, wiping out £50 million of debt including £6 million in tax. They would have been relegated last year but for a drastic late surge. Nigel Pearson, the manager who oversaw that escape, was sacked last summer after three players, including his son James, were involved in a filmed orgy in Bangkok. Pearson was replaced by Claudio Ranieri, formerly of Chelsea, an Italian who looked as if he were singing in I Pagliacci and had been sacked as manager of the Greek national team after they lost to the Faroe Islands.


Leicester’s leading scorer this season with 22 goals is Jamie Vardy, who has the mien of a parks footballer who got on the wrong bus; four year ago he was playing for Fleetwood Town. Their top midfielders are Riyad Mahrez, late of Le Havre reserves, and N’Golo Kante, who was with a Boulogne team slipping towards the French third division.

The three of them cost £7.1 million. Leicester’s annual wage bill is £57 million, about a quarter that of Manchester United, currently 17 points behind them. In Premier League terms Leicester are the raggediest of no-hopers, and were tipped for relegation this season. Their starting odds for the title were 5,000 to one, a price taken by a few people, mostly drunk or indulging a curiously English sense of humour.

Now they are four games from pulling it off, and this has led to a bafflement and joy that has burst the barriers of football. They picked a good season to find form, with all the leading clubs in transition or tortured by self-doubt. But just as importantly, Leicester have played in a glorious high-tempo one-for-all style in which the sum is genuinely greater than the parts. It’s been a curiously old-fashioned thing: all about team. Odds and ends of talent have been gathered together and found an implausible cohesion — all with the help of the ancient spirit of defiance. If you like, Leicester are the spirit of football past. Match after match, their approach has brought good results, and they have adopted a one-word motto. Fearless.

Ranieri, with an expression more normally seen on the white-faced clown, said that the real miracle was ‘We are safe.’ He meant safe from relegation to the league below. All season people have been waiting for Leicester to accept their proper position in the hierarchy and start failing as they should: a long-delayed but inevitable encounter with reality. The greater resources of their rivals must surely overwhelm them in the end. As racing people say, cheap horses know it.

And yet, astonishingly, that hasn’t happened. Yet. They haven’t lost since Valentine’s day — and so the world has got greedy. We don’t just want a tale of a pretender’s magic moment, a few weeks in the sun, a brief peasants’ revolt, a fleeting dreamtime in which we seemed for a second to hold the impossible in our hands.

No indeed. Now we want the full happily-ever-after. It would be a hideous disappointment to the world if Leicester failed to hang on and win the damn thing. The Wall Street Journal and Sports Illustrated from the United States have been covering the story; Leicester has been full of journalists from everywhere football is played, all mad to bring a miracle to their public.

Last weekend was desperate. Leicester suffered a sending-off and a penalty, and scraped a draw after a last-second penalty of their own. Winning is a skill in its own right and few Leicester players have mastered it. On Sunday they take on Swansea at home. They’re learning that fear of victory is harder to deal with than fear of defeat: a standard sporting paradox. They are learning that no one is fearless.

Leicester have not been lucky. They haven’t roughed up their opponents. They haven’t got anything they don’t deserve. They have been excellent: but it’s been a homely kind of excellence, the sport of rough-hewn excellence that makes us all brothers.

We are Leicester. We are all — well, most of us — people who do our best and get on with the job in hand and pursue unglamorous goals and deal with adversity and stick to our guns and make the most of what we’ve got. Leicester tell us that these can sometimes be the greatest virtues of them all.

Reader, she married him. The mild-mannered reporter emerges from the phone-booth in a cape and saves the world. The swan is admired by all. Arthur becomes king and the Boy Who Lived defeats He Who Must Not Be Named. Life should be like this — and in sport, sometimes it is.

Sports tells such tales again and again and again. Check out Christopher Booker’s ever-magnificent The Seven Basic Plots: along with Rags to Riches you’ll find Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth, Comedy and Tragedy. Every week sport retells all these tales: that’s why sport has such a hold over the world’s imagination.

These stories are always different and always the same. Semper eadem. The motto of the city of Leicester, as it happens.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • victor67

    This is true. Sadly Football and many other sports lost its soul long ago and has been corrupted by money and greed. The corporate beast has devoured it and will ultimately lead to its decline.

    • thomasaikenhead

      So true, which is why thousands of seats were empty last night when Arsenal played West Bromwich Albion, yet Arsenal pretend that the attendance was nearly full capacity!

    • Minstrel Boy

      Southampton once fielded an African player straight off the plane from France. He was supposed to be an international for his country of origin. Either he couldn’t stand up due to jet lag/drugs, or he was a complete ringer. He couldn’t pass wind or play football to save his life. Astonishing, but true story, which shows how far gone the game is in depending on foreign imports of dubious value. They might run the 100 metres in a record time, but that is about their limit.

  • right1_left1

    I do hopie that Leicester win the league.
    The problem is that in general footbal at the top is played by hacking spitting cheating violent excitable prima donnas.

    Why regular supporters of top teams seem to accept that the players are a mish mash of Africans and elswhere escapes me.
    Few would know what a whippet is for or refrain from eating a racing pigeon.

  • souptonuts

    Fantastic effort by Leicester City. Time to fully settle up with creditors who lost out when they went bust?

    • Disgruntledgoat

      including St John’s Ambulance

    • sir_graphus

      Indeed. HMRC lost £6m. That’s you and me, effectively. Other creditors usually included local catering businesses, and the like, who can’t afford to lose the money.

  • WFC

    It has been a wonderous season. Leicester first, Spurs second, West Ham sixth.

    The world turned upside down.

    (Shed a tear for Spurs fans, though. Years they have spent trying to put together a team to beat the moneybags teams. Finally they’ve done it, and along comes Leicester.)

  • Father Todd Unctious

    Leicester City have only been out of the top two tiers of English football for one season in 122 years. They play in a £40 million, 33,000 seat stadium. This year they bought in 11 new players at a net cost of over £20 million . Their wage bill is £65million or about £32,000 a week for the players. This is an expensive fairystory. Hardly minnows. Definitely not rags to riches, more like riches to excess.
    When Torquay Utd win the Premier League then you can crow about fairystories. For now soccer is as corrupted and ruined by money as any other sport.

  • thomasaikenhead

    Sport is not a fairytale factory when it is based on corruption, drug-taking and cheating though, is it?

    Football, tennis, cycling and athletics are all in the midst of massive scandals involving the above issues and these dwarf the fairy tales stories!

    Why have so many sport journalists remained in denial about the reality of professional sport?

    • Minstrel Boy

      Because they KNOW on which side their bread is buttered. ‘Sports Journalists’ make their living by hanging around training fields and gyms, pleading ingratiatingly for comment snippets and then cobbling them into a spiel which will sell a few copies. Getting blanked hits the pocket, hence the choice to remain sthum about most of what goes on.

  • Freddythreepwood

    Spoke to Brian Clough on the shadownet last night. He said “been there, done that.”

  • sir_graphus

    The fixtures are against them, compared to Spurs. I think Leics will score only 4 more points, and Spurs will pip them by a point. And that will be a damn shame.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      You epitomise the monochrome types who habituate sports like soccer. Denying any hint of serendipity or surprise to assert that everything is dull and predictable. Leicester City winning the Premier League is predictable and dull, just less so than usual.

      • John Bindon

        Football. Not soccer.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          I am distinguishing it from American, Australian, Garlic and Rugby football. So it is Soccer.

          • John Bindon

            I realise that. Its still never soccer.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Assoccer football or rugger football. Association football commonly known as soccer

          • Tamerlane

            Commonly known as football.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            American football, Sissies rules and Gaelic football are all commonly known as football. Soccer is used to distinguish the pampered world of the Carlos Kickaballs.

          • Tamerlane

            No, it ain’t, in this country it’s football. Soccer is for Americans.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Better tell Skysports to rename Soccer AM.

          • Tamerlane

            Yes, sky sports is the national vernacular. Wriggle like a two year old all you like, in this country it’s football.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            I wonder why you think Rowing is not a team sport? You do know it is teams of eight or four don’t you?

          • Tamerlane

            Now you move the goal posts again. Football YSBH. Not soccer. Except in the US and Canada.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            The Socceroos play for Australia. The word soccer is the older term. I prefer to use the correct nomenclature not some made up Americanism.

          • Tamerlane

            What you prefer is different to what is. Call it b0ll0cksball if it makes you happy, it’s still football on the streets and in the living rooms of Britain.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Like Grand Prix motorsport is now called F1. Still Grand Prix to me.

          • Tamerlane

            Again, you’re trying to wriggle of your own hook. It’s football, you call it what you like just don’t go pretending soccer is what everyone else calls it in this country. What you call F1 etc I couldn’t give a stuff.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Oh, that’s right you don’t give a stuff. That is why 40 of your last 50 comments are feeble efforts to gainsay me.
            Constant failure but still you try. You most definitely give a stuff.

          • Tamerlane

            You’ve been called out and found wanting YSBH. Deal with it.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            How exactly? Nothing you have said changes anything. Soccer is still a game. Football a genetic term for several games.
            Only you remain confused.But that is understandable, you always struggle with the basics.

      • Tamerlane

        You were the weedy one last to be picked for a team weren’t you?

        • Father Todd Unctious

          No. School Long jump champion due to my height. I guess you were the chubby ,asthmatic with two left feet.

          • Tamerlane

            As I suspected. Team sport is real sport, jumping, running, rowing etc is what you do if you’re no good at sport.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            What a great endorsement for our athletes,swimmers, gymnasts etc preparing for the Rio games. A stupid assertion that games are actually sport. Soccer , Cricket, Hockey and Rugby are games. Hence games lessons.
            We have had to correct you on this before. Sport is what gentlemen do to pass the time; shooting, fencing, horse riding, powerboat racing, car racing, boxing, running etc.

          • Tamerlane

            I couldn’t give a stuff about our athletes in Rio, neither could anyone else by the way, if they did they would watch athletics all year round as they do the premier league not just once every four years.
            Spare me the royal ‘we’ nonsense, you speak for no one but yourself and your chums from the Respect Party. Sport is a team event, the individual stuff is for non entities. Power boat racing, car racing etc is not sport, it’s a hobby. You wouldn’t understand this because you’ve been afraid of team sports and team sportsmen all your life.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Motorsport. Is is by very definition a sport. The clue is in the name. Just like sport fishing and sports shooting. Horse racing the “sport of Kings”.
            Soccer is known ( wrongly in my opinion) as the beautiful game…..because it is only a game.
            The Ferrari F1 team consists of about 900 people. Some hobby.

          • Tamerlane

            Really, the clue is in the name is it? Is ‘Spoil’ a sport then? Idiot.
            I just love the way you love Motorsport, a rich toff’s hobby entirely created by bored rich toffs with too much money and time and nothing else to do, called things like Rupert and Humphrey and whose chums owned newspapers to give it the publicity they (and their egos) sought and from which the modern pastime of Motorsport is entirely derived. I’m afraid horse-racing pretty much falls into that category as well – hence, as you proudly admit yourself, the sport of Kings. There’a s leftie SNP twerp on here called Jambo25 who goes bananas for rugby – a sport played in Scotland nowadays by people almost all called Rufus and Archie and who went to Glenalmond and Fettes.

            You lot are so blinded by your inadequacies and driven by fear you can’t even see it when it’s staring you in the face.

            (You can go ahead and change all your posts now).

          • Father Todd Unctious

            My introduction to motorsport was at the very raw ,working class end. Stock Car racing .
            I am the first to admit that money has ruined F1. But motor racing is and always has been sport. Soccer a trivial game.

          • Tamerlane

            You must be Prince Charles if you think stock car racing is working class. You haven’t done any of these things, you live them vicariously through your tv.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            You must be crazier than we first thought if you believe Stock Car racing is for toffs. It is played out on rough tracks in rundown inner cities and on disused wartime airfields. It is the poor man’s motorsport.

          • Tamerlane

            Only in 80s indie flicks, it still ain’t sport and you still ain’t a team player. You’re the weedy gangly one that never got picked for the rugby team.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            What 80s indie flick was made about British Stock Car racing? Was it BRISCA or Speedworth?

      • sir_graphus

        Eh?

        • Father Todd Unctious

          Exactly.

  • Marcus

    But for Leicester’s great achievements, there would have been more written about the rise from the brink of AFC Bournemouth. Ok, we too are now owned by a Russian billionaire and an American investment firm, but our team is full of recycled players, our entire back four played for us in League One, and our manager was only hired in 2009 because the club couldn’t afford to pay a proper wage with two compensation payouts to sacked managers. Oh, and he looks about sixteen and a half!

  • Sean L

    What are you on about? Leicester City have long been established in the upper tier of English football. I remember going to see United at a packed Filbert Street in ’76. It was quite scary: they had a notorious following. A few years before that they were Cup finalists, losing to City. Their manager at the time Frank O’Farrell got the United job on the back of their success. In ’63 they lost to United in the Cup final. They’ve always been thereabouts in the First or Second Division. Not rags to riches at all. Leicester aren’t Wimbledon. Not even close. As to the claptrap about sport “holding the imagination” – sport is all in the moment, spectacle, entertainment, no *imaginative* engagement: it’s there before your eyes. Hence the total absence of imaginative treatments of football. A guy wrote a football ‘novel’ a few years ago but it was based on fact. Football fanatic Nick Hornby’s football book is a memoir. Camus was a goalie but did he write about football? The reference to seven basic plots here is meaningless: gratuitous claptrap.

    • Alex

      I don’t know about that. You’re right that no imaginative action can happen on a football pitch, in reality or in fiction. One cross or goal or hand ball or red card is much the same as another. The drama of football comes in what the predictable (even if thrilling) action means in terms of who wins the league or goes down, the excitement a team’s run of form, a particular player’s career.

      Football teams may be a corporate entity whose fortunes the reader cannot themselves empathise with: but the best football writing, including Fever Pitch, talks about your individual response to the ups and downs of your team’s fortunes and the sense of being yourself part of a corporate entity, more the fans than the team.

      • Sean L

        Yes you make the point better than I did: following a football club is about membership and allegiance. Not just to the team, and not to any individual, but the entire institution and its history. In that sense it’s a transcendent bond of allegiance: all the people, players, managers, fans, could change, which of course they do all the time, the colours, the kit, many clubs have even changed their grounds, yet one’s membership and allegiance endures. But that kind of relationship is peculiar to football, and not to do with sport as such. And of course that allegiance conditions one’s response to the sport, the sensation of seeing and hearing the actual game of football itself together with one’s fellow “members” or “fans” or “supporters”. I can’t think of anything less literary or imaginative, and that’s why I think the article above is complete tosh from start to finish.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          So a gang mentality based on the same imprinting that ducklings exhibit.

          • Tamerlane

            Bullied at school by the 1XI eh? Thought so. Man up. Long time ago now, move on, it probably did you a world of good anyhow.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Funnily enough no.
            Are you trying hard to have a go with no substantive point to make as usual?

          • Tamerlane

            Merely dissecting your psyche.

        • Alex

          I don’t myself see why such a thing is so unliterary. It’s hardly going to move mountains but, particularly thinking of Fever Pitch, it holds a mirror up to some aspects of the human condition, comments on contemporary society and relates a genuine personal experience. Unimaginative I can now see what you mean, but unliterary, not in my view, or at least not necessarily.

          I think the problem with writing fiction, rather than a memoir, about football is that as far as football is concerned the Football Association and its teams and competitions constitute the entire universe. It would be ridiculous to write fiction about football being played in say the UK with teams that were other than those which actually played at the time when the story is set, with the same matches, players and results.

          That’s why the only football fiction anyone has ever really produced takes place in Sunday/youth leagues or has a pub team somehow reaching the FA Cup final. At the outside, something like Mike Bassett: England Manager where one national team is made up.

          I would also advance Bend It Like Beckham as an example of a good story that at least has football as a plot device.

          • Sean L

            Don’t get me wrong, going to the toilet can be “literary” – Anthony Burgess’s Enderby writes his poems sitting on it. The point was merely that literature implies writing and reading and language, engaging the intellect and imagination, whereas playing or watching football doesn’t so much employ those faculties.To be that extent sport or football isn’t”literary”. Doesn’t mean there can’t be good writing about it – John Updike on golf for instance.

  • Minstrel Boy

    It used to be said that night clubs were society’s Petrie Dishes, where the parents of the next generation got together. The same, with a slightly different emphasis, could be said of sports fields.
    I watched the FA Cup Youth fixture between Manchester City and Chelsea this week. What was most striking about the game, but a matter none dared mention, was that, although black people allegedly amount to only 3% of the British population, eighteen of the twenty two players competing in that match were either black or mixed race. Caucasian English youths were virtually absent, while some of the Caucasian players present appeared to be of Spanish/ Portuguese origin.
    Have I missed a generation whilst being asleep for a short while? Where are all the indigenous English, Scots, Welsh and Irish youths who once graced the fields of top level association football? In these days of proportional ethnic representation, equality of opportunity and affirmative action, does this incredible over-representation of African origin players reflect a new discovery or trend?

    • mohdanga

      test

    • mohdanga

      It is odd, isn’t it? Where is the call for proportionate representation? Whites should make up 85% of the NBA teams, but if this was suggested there would be rioting.

      • Minstrel Boy

        I guess that like the 100 metres Olympic lineup, their representation is purely based upon ‘talent’. Of course, suggesting that white people have ‘talents’ which enable them to pass competitive exams and succeed in economic activities is deemed ‘racist’ by the same people who defend the Olympic lineup as truly reflective of ability. Personally, I have no problem with the Olympic lineup, or the NBA, or the youth teams of the Premier League. I assume they select the fittest and the best. So why not accept the same argument in relation to other activities and why should some of the fittest, brightest and best lose out in competition for social advancement just to fulfil some ‘equality/diversity/ affirmative action’ programme? People who rely on playing the race card in order to ‘get on’ should not be allowed to have their cake and eat it. Life in every form is competitive and no one, irrespective of their origins, should be given a ‘free pass’ to success just because they happen to fill some quota.

  • John Bindon

    Even if Leicester don’t win it, Spurs will, so either way a sixth club triumphs.

  • 1234567890

    Some would say it’s an illegal drugs factory (and has been for decades); I wouldn’t quibble. But to all the vested interests, from the moneymen at the top, who set the tone & agenda, to the lowliest employee, as long as the money is rolling in…

    • Leicesterfan

      Have you any proof for your accusations?

      • 1234567890

        If you knew the first thing about the issue you wouldn’t ask such a puerile question.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      No racial slurs.

      • 1234567890

        ??

  • Gary Johnson

    Not my team but the leicester story is a truely fantastical one brilliantly portrayed here by the incomparable Mr Barnes.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Leicester, truly
      I’m a racist.
      So did LC win?

  • justejudexultionis

    The real miracle team is Newcastle United. Never in human history has a team so wealthy done so consistently badly.

  • Disqus Bolloqus

    1-1, another step towards the title. Excellent result for Foxes as Utd have second best home record in league (behind only Leicester themselves), and have conceded only eight goals in eighteen games including the one Leicester scored today. We could be champions by Sunday evening.

  • Roger Hudson

    Sport (professional sport) is about money, profit for a few including TV stations. An opium for the masses living on credit for a Sky subscription.

  • Kandanada

    “Sport is a fairytale factory – as Leicester City remind us”

    Sport is a fairytale factory – as Leicester City REMINDS us

    There is correct grammar and incorrect grammar, unless one is of the left and wishes to instead call the latter non-standard grammar.

    • Alex

      There is descripitivism and prescriptivism, unless one is of the right and wishes to instead call the latter “the way things should be done”

      To use the singular is a marked Americanism anyway

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Doncha know it’s a form of racism to call attention to misspelling and broken grammar in UK trash culture?

    • trobrianders

      “As Leicester City” could just as easily be seen as a short form of “As those at Leicester City”, in which case you’d go with remind and not reminds.

  • Give our God Immortal Praise

    No way would Leicester have won the title if others weren’t so distracted. Man City are going big time for the Champs League which rules them out of winning the Prem since hardly anyone ever does both. Man Utd are undergoing transition and Chelsea had a very freakish never seen anything like it before season. Top four at best is really the most Leicester deserve if that.

    • angus westmorland

      JUst heard on the news that Leicester have won the league after the two London teams unable to defeat each other . Well done Leicester. They do deserve to win the title because they were the best team . No team has an exclusive right to have the title . This is the real world where by sheer hard work and inspired team spirit things good things get done. Not a sense of entitlement and inflated ego which pervades in the Premier league.

      • Give our God Immortal Praise

        I repeat: if Man City were not going big time for the Champs League they’d have won the Prem easy. Leicester’s win is phony.

        • angus westmorland

          With respect . It is an empirical fact that they are top of the league and the record books will always show that they won the premiership for 2015-2016. Please understand I am not a supporter of Leicester but let them enjoy their hard earned glory.

          • Give our God Immortal Praise

            Well done missing the point.

          • angus westmorland

            Hello again. The point is the EPL is a very hard tough league to be in. To win it requires talent ,good management ,plenty of money etc. No team has a divine right to be the top team . No club should feel as if they are immortal and condescend to play with allegedly inferior teams.
            It is not an infallible right for any team to assume that they and they alone should be number one. Peace be with you.

    • trobrianders

      Lose money did you? You sound like you lost money.

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