Underdogs' triumph spicing up football [Part 2]

Underdogs' triumph spicing up football [Part 1]

Atletico Madrid making the Finals of Uefa Champions League for the 2nd time in three years is an equally heartwarming tale. Giants were slayed enroute to the Holy Grail. The only heart rending anticlimax is the loss to the Great Real Madrid, by far the richest football club and individual sporting entity on earth.

Undecimal achieved. Ideally, the Derby of Madrid is expected to be a lopsided affair. In no uncertain terms Real boasts a squad depth that even a few armies in the world would be proud of if they had similar fire power. A team assembled at the prize of 560 million pounds plus add-ons, has in the same squad two of the most expensive footballers in the world on the pitch at the same time, one has arguably been either the best or second best player in the world for the last eight seasons.

This Titan comes up against a local rival whose entire squad has been assembled at a cost no less than that of the second most expensive player at Real. Much as they say derbies are most hard fought, in recent years this one has been the most closely contested. It is a notable surprise that despite the gulf in financial fortunes between the clubs, only a hair line difference has been the margin in contests between these two.

It is not to say that Real were ripped off in the purchase of their stars, No! What Zinedine Zidane, a former World Cup & Ballon d’or winner himself has in squad quality is matched by tactical acumen, defensive grit and all round fighting spirit from the Diego Simeone coached side of town. Nothing like being coached by a former player who encompasses your team’s philosophy mirrored by personal ethos and work ethic. Despite one side being 7 times more expensive than the other, they were tightly poised at 1-1 at the end of both normal time and extra time.

On penalties

Only the lottery of penalties produced the sucker punch that decided the contest. Pretty much like the big bully almost being defeated in a brawl but capitalizing on the slip of the smaller boy to throw sand into his eyes and then land the deciding blow. Portugal winning Euro 16 has baffled not just many a soccer pundit but also the big guns that expected to win the tournament outright. Not less are Belgium, Germany and the hosts who were the losing finalists France. You tell that to Cristiano Ronaldo. Irreparably injured 25 minutes into the contest and seemingly inconsolable, he went to the touch line to play the role of assistant coach to great effect.

At the end of 120 minutes of football you would have have been forgiven for thinking Cristiano was a Kindergarten boy who had been mugged off his lunch at the bus station. The unmistakable yell and tears of joy was clear for all to see. Unfortunately, for the opposite No.7 Antoine Griezemann, the lightning of a finals’ loss has struck twice in a month and a half. All the same pat on the back for a veritable performance.

For the analysis, how do you reach the Semi finals of a major tournament by drawing all your matches in normal time? Then still have enough in the tank to pip the tournament favourites to the trophy. Defensive strength, excellent counter-attack, tactical acumen, team spirit and Fernando Santos. But after many years of toil, heart break, pain and loss your karma has to turn sooner rather than later. However, the ‘Belo Guttman’ curse for Benfica may take longer to exorcise. 

When Iceland stunned world football super power and the progenitors of total football, Netherlands to qualify for Euro 2016 nobody thought much of it at the time. Coming to this tournament as underdogs many thought them the whipping boys of their group. However, the smallest of the countries there by population drew two matches to within an inch of a win before finally putting Austria, a favourite in their group to the sword to against all odds finish 2nd in their group. If you had thought that was a gargantuan feat then your jaws had to be collected from the floor in the last 16 where they stunned perennial contenders - also rans, England.

Unfortunately, their run was brought to a screeching halt in the Quarter finals by a mauling by tournament hosts France. Wales stunned many others but not themselves when they qualified for their first tournament ever since King George I was slaying dragons. Unfancied but still gave a good account of themselves qualifying ahead of tournament favourites, the old rival England and Russia. They tore apart surprise package Hungary before putting pre-tournament favourites Belgium to the same sword. Their charge was curtailed only by the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and the good fortune for Luis Nani. They put up a veritable run nonetheless.

AFCON 2017

The Qualification of Guinea Bissau for Afcon 2017. This occurred majorly to the same effect as a lightning bolt out of clear skies. Prequalification expectation of being the whipping boys rang all around when the draw was made. African giants Zambia, improving Congo and deluded giants Kenya were the other opponents. When they held Zambia to a draw in Ndola, nobody thought much of that. They were next whipped by Congo Brazzaville and everyone thought the writing was on the wall. They then made capital against a disoriented Kenya in March in similar solitary margin home and away wins and a few sat up to take notice.

Thanks to a favourable mix of results; when they whipped Zambia 3-2 in Bissau, a miniature tremor was occasioned by the ensuing celebrations. They had against all odds been among the first teams to qualify for African Cup of Nations to be held in 2017 causing a ‘rumble in the jungle’ only similar in magnitude to Mohammed Ali and George Foreman’s gig in DRC back in ‘74. The name is Jamie. Jamie Vardy. This is not the quintessential line many of you are used to from watching super hero British spy agent movies for many a year.

Fast forward, August 2015 and this unassuming 29 year old was given a similar introduction into our living rooms starring for Leicester City. For 11 straight matches running he scored, many being winning goals. Of course it was not always like this while featuring in non-league obscurity at Stockbridge Park Steels, FC Halifax and Fleetwood Town. Here among other pre-match rituals included milking cows, chasing livestock and the ceremonial stray cat/dog off the pitch, the Shirts Vs Skins toss, collecting the referee from the local, convincing Paddy Sluttery, the in-house jester who is also your holding mid that another Gordon Brown tenure is unlikely, posting bail for Jamie Gill, the undefeated brawling champion and weekend jail-bird who despite an electronic tag on the ankle doubles up as your striker, boozing up the community college lasses to convince them to come to watch the match and last but not least the last minute pee in the bush.

At 29 and seemingly in the twilight of his nondescript career found himself the spear head at the tip of the Leicester juggernaut that rode roughshod on all and sundry to the league title. Get the job done he did, so much so that he received a maiden call up to the English fold where he continued his stellar form. On the other side of the spectrum but similarly remarkable is Marcus Rashford who was virtually unknown until errors in judgement and preseason departures left Louis van Gaal strikerless after injury to Wayne Rooney. With only Antony Martial around, Rashford was called up to the plate and seize the chance he did. Goals against no less Arsenal, Man City and a few other scalps in FA Cup established Rashford as indispensible upfront. His purple patch infront of goal, poise and speed earned him a call up to the final squad for Euro 16 ahead of Jermaine Defoe. 

The Re-emergence of mother Italia and USA reaching the semis of Copa America Centenario make up the rest of the seemingly improbable footballing feats. USA reaching this point was not exactly a major achievement but when put in the perspective of giants like Brazil and Uruguay going home first round it stands out.
In this era of fairy tales making a reemergence, nobody is immune from capitulation. The stellar players could tumble at any time. The guys closer to the best should be prepared to capitalize on such events. I write this for guys like super Mario Ballotelli who aspires to win Balon d’or one day. Pull up your socks son and all the best. Also hoping ‘ze god of Taekwondo-football’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic wins the gong to crown his stellar career before retiring.

Dennis Mukoya is a soccer enthusiast and a thinker of new solutions. Click here for more blogs.