The good times keep rolling for Claudio Ranieri. Last season his Leicester City side defied the odds to win the English Premier League title for the first time in the club’s history, penning a story that captivated the entire world. After then seeing his team end 2016 by securing a place in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, he began the new year by beating Zinedine Zidane and Fernando Santos to The Best FIFA Men’s Coach award.
Looking back on a fairy-tale 2016 with the same blend of enthusiasm and wisdom that he employs in the dugout, the 65-year-old Italian coach gave an exclusive interview to FIFA.com.
How does it feel to be the best coach of the year?
It feels wonderful. I would like to thank my chairman, my players and our fans. Their support is the only reason I’m here now and they achieved something quite incredible this season. There’s a new challenge now, though: to continue pursuing my passion and to stay hungry so that we can fulfil more objectives and move on from what we’ve already achieved.
What do you think was the key to Leicester’s league championship win?
It’s hard to put it down to one thing in particular. Everything was perfect. It’s hard to explain the chemistry in the dressing room. It was magical, and it’s something that’s never happened to me before. And in footballing terms we just made the most of the circumstances. We played well but it just so happened that none of the other big teams were on top of their game. It’s strange to say something like that when you win the league by ten points, but it’s true.
When did you start feeling that the dream could become reality?
From an emotional viewpoint, I’d say that there were two moments in particular. The first came when we beat Manchester City 3-1 in Manchester. We played so well! The second was when we lost to Arsenal in the 95th minute in February. I thought to myself: ‘If they needed five minutes of injury time to beat us, then it means that we must be doing something right’. That’s the emotional side of me, but I’m a pragmatist and in that respect I only believed it when we had our hands on the trophy.
How did you handle the dressing room during the course of the season? Was it hard?
I kept trying to relieve the pressure. My idea, along with my coaching staff, was to tell the players that they had to enjoy the moment. Even though we only lost three games, every time it happened, I told them: ‘Don’t worry. Keep working and enjoying yourselves. We’ll win the next game’. You have to take it step by step and be focused. It sounds like a cliché, but if you want to win something, all you can do is think about the next match and not look any further ahead.
The bookmakers had us at 5000-1 to win. There was more chance of a spaceship landing in Piccadilly Circus!
What excited you most about winning the title?
What pleased me most of all was seeing the fans so happy and reading the letters people sent to us from all over the world. That showed me that it wasn’t just about sport and that we could touch people from other walks of life. People said: ‘If Leicester can win the Premier League, everyone can fight for good things in life, even when the chances of success are slim’.
Talking of which, have you spoken to Leicester City idol Gary Lineker about the promise he made to present a football programme on British TV wearing only his underwear?
Yes, several times and we laugh about it now (laughs). But I understand that. After all, the bookmakers had us at 5000-1 to win. There was more chance of a spaceship landing in Piccadilly Circus!
European football seems to be dominated by just a handful of teams these days. Do you think we’ll ever see such an achievement again?
Life is unpredictable, but if everyone says that the Leicester story was a fairy tale, it perhaps means that it’ll be another 50 years before something like this happens again. These days money buys the best players, and at the end of the day it’s the team with the best squad that has the biggest chance. That’s a fact. But we showed that it’s not only the rich who can win, so it might be something that doesn’t happen just the once. That’s why I say it could happen again in 50 years (laughs).
Things have not gone so smoothly since you won the title. Why do you think your form has dipped this season?
It’s not been easy, but luck has played a part too. Last season, every time our opponents created chances they missed them, but now they’re all going in. It’s also true, though, that we maybe haven’t been as focused in the Premier League because we’ve been thinking that we’ll bounce back from every defeat without any problem. It’s been different in the Champions League. It’s a new tournament for us, and shorter too, which has helped us to focus. I’ve noticed a big difference in these last few matches in the league, though, and I think that we’re back on track now. We won’t be fighting for the title, but we can have a good season.
Maybe you can surprise everyone again and win the Champions League this year.
No. Leicester showed last season that anything is possible, but let’s be serious (laughs).
You mentioned luck. Do you think it’s essential in football?
Absolutely! You need luck in every situation. You can work hard and do everything perfectly but if you don’t have the luck… Obviously, you can’t go and sit under a tree and plead for luck to come your way (laughs). If you want to be lucky, you have to fight for it.
Luck, results, intelligence… what is the key to success when you’re coaching at the top?
I can only talk about myself. I have a lot of passion and I think I’m good at getting that across to my players. You might say that I have the key to unlocking players’ minds, though not all of them. It pains me when I can’t make it happen because I feel as if it’s my fault rather than theirs. I think that’s the secret, because when you’re working at the highest level it’s vital that you show the players how much you love the game and that you convince them to do the same. But if you really want to know what it is that players want, then maybe you should be asking them.