Almanac Soccer: Miracles do happen!

Leicester City can cause one of the biggest shocks in recent sporting memory by winning the English Premier League. In a league dominated by clubs featuring the top talent funded by men once removed from Bond villains ‘The Foxes’ need only win this Sunday away to Manchester United to win their first ever top division league title. Blackburn Rovers’ title win in 1995 was a joy to behold but it came on the back of heavy funding from steel magnate Jack Walker whereas Leicester’s squad costs some fraction of the big clubs like Man City, Chelsea and other opponents.

As Ange Postecoglou said on Offsiders last Sunday, “There isn’t a blueprint for this.”

This potential title win is an extraordinary achievement for a club in a league such as this but it wouldn’t be the first time a minor club in a major European league has come from nowhere to take the title.

 

BOAVISTA FC (Portuguese Champions 2001)

The city of Porto in Northern Portugal is well known as the home of FC Porto, one of the most successful of all Portuguese clubs that has shared the league title with Sporting Lisbon and Benfica over 65 of the 66 seasons played since 1934. The only resistance ever shown to the big three of Portugal had been Belenenses in the year following World War II in what was a small holiday away from the big three carving up the league between themselves.

It was kind of like a country footy league where one of two teams dominated by 100 points each week unless playing each other. Benfica were Rovers, Sporting were Towns and Porto were Railways.

There was also another team from Porto. Boavista FC.

Boavista were nicknamed the Panthers and featured rather unique silky black and white chessboard style shirts that made their players look like they were about to saddle a horse called Fleeting Chance in the last at Morphettville rather than kick a round ball around.

Boavista had put up a challenge to the big clubs once in their history when finishing runner up in the mid ’70s but for the most part had to settle with the odd cup victory and be part of the status quo barely making a dent. In the late ’90s the club was taken over by João Loureiro as President after the retirement of his father.

The 44 year old was a brash young change from the antiquity of grizzled old politically well connected chairmen in their 60s and with the appointment of Porto legend Jaime Pacheco as coach they built a team around the Bolivian international Erwin Sanchez. The side also had a miserly defence marshaled by the quite mad goalkeeper Ricardo who sometimes had the urge to play without gloves. You may remember his bare handed penalty saving exploits at Euro 2004 when in goal for Portugal against England.

The first shot across the bow to the bigger clubs came when Boavista finished runner up in the 1998/99 season behind a Porto side that had galloped off with the league by the new year. The loss of star strikers and playing in Europe during the week meant they faded in 1999/00 but by the 2000/01 season they had learnt their lesson and were hoping for another shot.

It was a glorious season as Boavista only conceded 21 goals all season long as the big boys faded with the exception of arch rivals Porto who chased Boavista right until the penultimate round. In this round if Boavista won they would be champions and avoid having a winner takes all match against Porto in the final game. Boavista won 3-0 against Desportivo das Aves to claim the title and become only the second champion of Portugal that wasn’t one of the big boys. This would be Boavista’s only title with the refurbishment of their stadium for Euro 2004 putting the club on the bones of its arse financially and even spent time in the second division.

They will always have their one and only league title though.

 

AZ ALKMAAR (2009 Dutch Champions)

Like Portugal, the Dutch league was normally split between the three big clubs in Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven. Ajax featured revered players through their illustrious history such as Cruyff and Neeskens while Feyenoord spawned the great Ruud Gullit and PSV was where Guus Hiddink first showed he was a masterful coach with a succession of trophies. All three had been European champions at some stage and all had ruled Holland between them.

AZ Alkmaar was a team born in the ’60s when ex football playing brothers the Molenaars had turned into businessmen and merged two other clubs. The merging was a success making the club competitive and keeping it in the top division of Holland managing to win the league title in 1980 in what was a slight deviation for the normal script of the same three league winners. Apart from this league title though it had been largely barren for the side as it was for most sides.

In 2005 the club started to turn its fortunes around by hiring one Louis Van Gaal as coach. The rather eccentric gaffer with the face like a mosaic had amazingly failed to get Holland to the 2002 World Cup (pretty much a war crime to some) and then lasted six months at Barcelona in a horrible second stint at the club. Van Gaal rebuilt his reputation and put together a strong side with a limited budget and in the 2005/06 season got AZ to third despite having a stadium that only held around 9000 fans.

In 2006/07 they blew the league on the final day but had massive momentum with many romantics hoping they would end the stranglehold of the big three clubs in 2007/08. The club was now in a stadium that held 17,000 fans and were to be taken very seriously as a title challenger. That season they finished 13th.

Van Gaal was the whipping boy in the Dutch press again and offered his resignation but player power saw him be talked into staying in the job. This seemed not to make one bit of difference in the early stages of the 2008/09 season with AZ losing the first two games of the season and with the champions PSV up next. Alkmaar upset PSV and then went on a 28 game unbeaten run including going over 1000 minutes without conceding a goal. In their final match to clinch the league they somehow almost blew it again losing 2-1 but thankfully their closest rival Ajax were defeated by PSV and Alkmaar had broken the trilateral stranglehold and won the league.

Van Gaal had pulled off a minor miracle for a club with a small fraction of the fans and money of the big three and, of course, was not at all modest about his achievements never really applauding the players and referring to the title as ‘his greatest masterpiece’. Humble. The Socceroos Brett Holman was also part of this AZ side that triumphed against the odds.

With his reputation back in the black Van Gaal left the club and went to German giants Bayern Munich and back to a career coaching mega rich clubs. FC Twente would follow AZ and win the league title the next season before it has gone back to business as usual with Ajax particularly dominant in Holland.

 

HELLAS VERONA (1985 Italian Champions)

The top Italian football division Serie A was a domestic footballing monster in the mid ’80s. With English football stuck in the hooligan mire and Spain having its own issues the best of the best played in Italy. Napoli had Maradona arriving and about to win league titles in what was a minor miracle in itself while the Milan sides were very strong with Juve featuring the brilliant Frenchman Platini et al and were the reigning European champions after the tragedy and triumph of Heysel. This was all with the 1990 World Cup to be hosted by Italy also.

Verona at the time was better known for the place of doomed romance in the eyes of Shakespeare rather than having any great football side. Hellas Verona had been promoted in to the top division just two years before and had survived with a solid team of plodders, but it was when the Danish striker Preben Elkjaer and German star Hans-Peter Briegal arrived did they now have a decent team.

The footballing world didn’t expect Verona to be decent enough to take Serie A by storm in the 1984/85 season and would be happy with another mid table finish. Verona started the season hosting Napoli with their brand new signing Maradona but defeated them with Briegal keeping the Argentine superstar in his backpocket. Early in the season league favourites Juve visited and were also vanquished by Verona with Elkjaer scoring the winner even after a tackle saw him lose a boot with the Dane continuing on towards goal.

Verona would drop points in games against more insignificant opposition but much like this year’s Premier League race their closest rivals in the league (Inter and Torino) would also make mistakes dropping points and giving them a buffer. They would need this buffer with a heap of games against the sacred cows of the league but drew against Inter, thrashed the much fancied Perugia 5-3 away from home and drew with Juve to be top with six games to go. Much like Leicester at the start of April they dared to dream and just had to do away with second placed Torino at home to be champions elect but somehow lost for only the second time that season.

It wouldn’t get easier the week after with a trip to the San Siro to take on AC Milan but drew that match and then did away with Lazio needing only a draw in the final game away to Atalanta to take out a shock league title. Verona were down 1-0 at half time but managed to rally and after equalising early in the second half through Elkjaer they parked the bus and desperately held on for another agonizing 40 minutes to win the league title; the first to go outside of Milan, Rome or Turin in almost 20 years. This was all done playing only 16 players all season with a squad that were more than tightly knit.

Hellas Verona thought this would mean they would be with the big boys in the years to come but sadly finished mid table the year after as the squad were sold or they retired. Players won titles with other sides (including Sampdoria in what was another shock title win in 1991) but Verona have since bounced between divisions going as low as Serie C1 when the club went bankrupt. They were relegated from Serie A again just 48 hours ago and are a club that seem to be happy to live through interesting times.

‘A Season in Verona’ by Tom Parks is an excellent book on the club and their fans in the 1999/2000 season.

 

 

VFL WOLFSBURG (2009 German Champions)

Clubs do manage to win league titles in between the domination by different Bayern Munich sides. Dortmund has always been one to be consistently up there with a chance but no one expected a team like Wolfsburg to ever be consistent enough to finish in the top places let alone on top of the actual table.

The side was first formed by employees at Volkswagen before the Second World War (still a sore point with some) and play in a resplendent lime green strip. While a decent team they were never on the same level as bigger German clubs, escaping relegation on a consistent basis until they somehow talked the quite mad ex Bayern Munich boss Felix Magath into taking over the side. Magath had a touch of Arnold Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark about him and was called ‘Saddam Hussein’ by some players for the brutal regimes he would make players go through in training. He also loved chess and had once played simultaneous games against Kasparov. With all of this he also had strange methods such as suggesting that cheese being rubbed on an injury would make it heal better but the gap between truth and myth was sometimes blurred.

Despite his cheese rubbing Iraqi dictator mannerisms Magath promised he would make Wolfsburg a force which was met with derision from the German press. Also derided by some was his takeover of not only coaching role but the role as Director of Football and taking charge of the youth side in an extreme case of multi-tasking. The team did turn around though and in the 2007/08 season they finished a remarkable fifth and qualified for Europe.

Much like Al Czervik in Caddyshack the club could still get no respect but entered the 2008/09 season with momentum and new signings such as the Bosnian midfield string puller Misimovic. Unfortunately for Wolfsburg the momentum from the previous season all but disappeared with the club struggling to put together a run in the first half of the season drawing three out of the first four games and winning a game then losing a game for almost two months straight. They entered the German mid-season winter break with only six wins, six draws and five loses and way down the table.

During the winter break Magath thought that he could only take the club so far in his multi-faceted role and agreed to join Schalke at the end of the season keeping the deal under wraps. Unfortunately for Magath, the press and any other doubters the team went on to win a remarkable 10 games on the bounce in late January when the league resumed including a season defining 5-1 thrashing of Bayern Munich to put the side on top of the table. Misimovic was a revelation creating opportunities for the prolific goal scoring pairing of Edin Dzeko and the Brazilian Grafite who put dozens of goals away but with six games to go the run ended with a loss to lowly Energie Cottbus. The journey to the top perhaps was a big tease.

Wolfsburg kept their nerve and, despite one more loss, came into the final game at home to Werder Bremen with a win needed to the take title. There were no nerves and no false dawns with Wolfsburg making it 3-1 in the first half then scoring two more in the second half to get the party started with a 5-1 victory and win a shock Bundesliga title over the Bavarian giants Bayern. Thousands of bewildered celebrating fans gathered out the front of the town hall for the traditional Bundesliga title winning celebrations with the squad where the players and coaching staff (including Magath) would scull steins of beer from the town hall balcony to the cheers of the crowd. Bob Hawke didn’t get this reception at the SCG. This tradition had been done in Munich, Berlin, Dortmund, Cologne, Kaiserslautern etc over the years but never in Wolfsburg and wouldn’t again to this day.

The following season they finished 8th with Magath now called ‘the Selfish Messiah’ in the press taking up his role at Schalke. The club since this remarkable season have returned to more humble times.

 

MONTPELLIER (2012 French Champions)

The top French football division Ligue 1 has been a lot more open than other big leagues in Europe until recent times. It was common for large periods of time for a different club to win the league each year with equalisation that the AFL would kill for. Lyon came along and dominated for a little while with their immense youth system before there was another period of different teams winning. While the title was shared around Montpellier winning the league title during this stint was even a bolt out of the blue for French football.

Montpellier is located on the south coast of France in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and was well known for being a place where Nostradamus studied and a town of wine, women and song for only the most elite of Eurotrash rather than football. The team had bounced around the lower divisions with the odd stint in the top league and were seen as the ugly step-sister to the awe inspiring beauty of their sibling rugby side who had won the Heineken Cup and was a haven for disgraced Wallabies players. The magnanimous owner of both clubs as well as other sporting interests was Louis Nicollin who was a self-made millionaire with a similar BMI to Clive Palmer. Nicollin also had quite the silver tongue managing to attract players like Eric Cantona, Carlos Valderrama and the evergreen Roger Milla to the club over the years but despite these attempts to buy the league it had been a near barren existence.

In the 2009/10 season (their first back in the top division for some years) they at one stage led the league before fading to fifth in a decent effort that earned patronising admiration; the little boys putting up a fight. 2010/11 wasn’t such a great effort though with the side escaping relegation and seemingly doing what was expected. What made the task harder for any team to win the league in the upcoming 2011/12 French season was Paris St-Germain being bought out by the cashed up Qatar Sports Investment group which meant the much derided Parisian giants would have a budget far larger than any other challenger and would probably walk the league. Montpellier just hoped they would survive and perhaps get a place in Europe with a young squad of potential superstars and taking a punt on the top Ligue 2 striker Olivier Giroud to solve their goal scoring issues.

Montpellier started off very well winning their first five games in seven. Then PSG came to town and crushed the rebel opposition with ease 3-0. It seemed that from here PSG would run away with the league but the new glamour signings for PSG just couldn’t gel as Montpellier went on to be undefeated from early October until mid December and then in the new year before losing on St Patrick’s Day. On this unbeaten run they traveled to Paris and came away with a 2-2 draw which showed they of all teams would be the only ones that could possibly stop PSG.

A costly draw with the lowly Evian Thonon Galliard kept it tight. In the penultimate game of the season they would face the defending champions Lille at home and snuck a win 1-0 to leave it in their hands in the final round. Both their final game and PSG’s would kick off simultaneously. They were so, so close.

Needing a win to confirm their unlikely championship Montpellier played away to the already relegated Auxerre who were bottom of the league and in complete disarray. On a tumultuous night Auxerre went ahead before John Utaka, Montpellier’s much traveled Nigerian winger, equalised but a draw wouldn’t do and at half time Montpellier still had to find a goal. In the second half Auxerre fans decided this night would be a great time to protest about the state of their club. The fans threw eggs, ping pong balls, flares, toilet rolls and other assorted bric-a-brac on to the pitch stopping the game twice.

The game re-started again with Montpellier still needing a winning goal. The PSG game had finished already with the Parisian side winning their game. Montpellier’s game continued due to the delays so they knew exactly what they had to do now, they had to win. There was another delay when more objects were thrown on the pitch, this delay went on for another 25 agonising minutes. Commentators lamented how unfair this was on Montpellier. TV coverage showed the PSG players showered and watching the Montpellier game on TV hoping for a draw or a loss to the visitors so they would be champions. The game started once again and Montpellier scored, Utaka again, 2-1. Montpellier were almost there but Auxerre fought even though the wooden spoon was going to be theirs regardless. The final whistle finally went some 45 minutes after the scheduled end time for the game and Montpellier and won an amazing league title. Coach Girard said (quite literally) that it was longest night of his life.

The club traveled back home to a rapturous welcome in the town square with both fans and players looking like they had not slept. Nicollin went through with his promise to dye his hair the colours of his club if they won the league looking like a current Geelong Mayor or elderly version of Keith Flint from the Prodigy. Nicollin finally had his league title with a team winning with team spirit more than token purchases. Giroud had finished as top scorer in the league with 21 goals. The gamble on the now Arsenal striker had come off.

PSG would not blow it again and for the past four seasons have won the league in a canter with a budget doubling most other clubs. Anyone knocking off PSG now in France would probably be as shocking as Montpellier’s famous league victory in 2012.

 

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM presenter and Glory Guerrillas pod co-host. Cat, Cardie, Glory Bhoy and Socceroo by pain of death. Seen too many Geelong and Socceroos disasters to mention and worships the holy trinity of Larsson, Mifka and Senna.

Comments

  1. Very comprehensive Dennis, great work.
    Everyone tune in to watch Leicester vs. Man U at 11.05pm this Sunday. If they can win the title at Old Trafford that really would put a fairly unnecessary cherry on an already Disney sized wedding cake.

  2. Thesaurus Rex says:

    “Need only win away” to Man U not so easy to do – especially without their goal-scoring ace!

    Leicester obviously would love to win it on Sunday night but there’s MUCH more pressure on Spurs at this time. Two draws this round will also do it … if L City draws & Spurs also draw on Tuesday morning, that would be end-game! Tottenham could manage only a maximum of 76, 1 point shy of Leicester – even if it dropped the last two games.

  3. The EPL championship’s Leicester’s to lose! Its fundamentally out of Tottenham’s hands now, all it can do is keep winning … & pray. Only Ranieri’s XI can prevent itself from winning the title by succumbing in all three remaining matches.

    And this is the opportunity for the hitherto modestly performed Leicester Foxes (to date no Div I or EPL titles, no FA Cups) to finally wrest away the winter sport bragging rights from Leicester rugby*

    * The Leicester Tigers are the most successful club in the history of the English Rugby Premiership with 10 titles plus 7 Anglo-Welsh Cups to its name.

  4. Peter Fuller says:

    Thank you Dennis for this comprehensive summary. I am particularly grateful that you corrected my impression that this had become an impossibility in the European Leagues, because of wealth inequality, which is of course, becoming more pronounced over time.

    I think that I’d draw a line at 1992, with the introduction of the Champions’ League and its group stages – designed to ensure that the “big” teams couldn’t be eliminated by a fluke result at an early stage of competition. This of course ensures that the riches of European competition remain the virtual exclusive property of the wealthy clubs. Thus from the viewpoint of Man U, Arsenal, and more recently Chelsea and Man City a virtuous circle. Our wealth enables us to buy the best players, thus we usually (always?) qualify for Europe, and receive more income, not available on any regualr basis (if at all) to lesser mortal clubs.

    There is even a paradoxical risk for a “poor” club which qualifies for Europe, that its limited squad is stretched through the demands of midweek games against European rivals, then having to face up to domestic competition, on a three- or four-day turn around. This is less an issue for the super-rich with their bigger squads – they can afford to rest players from the domestic competition as and when necessary,being able to call up adequate replacements. I recall Ipswich having a particularly good year in the EPL, after promotion from the Championship. qualifying for the Europa League, then being relegated in the year in which their schedule had to accommodate regular games on the continent. The Tractor Boys were then relegated, and haven’t made it back to the Prem.

    Leicester’s achievement this year is monumental.

    I’d encourage anyone interested in the economics of football (soccer) to consult http://swissramble.blogspot.com.au/
    even if only to see the scale of the wealth disparity of the big clubs in Europe and the rest.

  5. Dennis Gedling says:

    Thanks for the feedback guys. It’s a shame if Spurs drop points tonight to hand the Foxes the title without being on the pitch when it happens. A tad anti climactic.

    There was a trend in the EPL for a while where a team (such as Ipswich) would have a tremendous first season back in the league, get a European spot, then wilt under the demands put on their squad. As someone who doesn’t have an English team to support per se it definitely has make me see the league as something more than a cashed up hyped through the roof beast.

  6. Mic Rees says:

    Dennis – How about the 77/78 Forest team that won the League title & League Cup?

    Different times certainly, but Forest had been promoted from Div. 2 the previous season (3rd and final promotion spot), so I wouldn’t have thought too many experts would’ve given Cloughies men much of a chance of prevailing.

    The addition of Kenny Burns, Peter Shilton & Archie Gemmill helped somewhat.

    Keep up the good work.

    MCR

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