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The final that restored faith in football

The final that restored faith in football

FOOTBALL: After a long, hard season that often felt so soulless due to the lack of fans in stadia, that was dogged by ongoing issues and controversy with technology being fused into the game and muddied by the overt greed of clubs connected to the European Super League (ESL), last Saturday’s (May 15) FA Cup final seemed almost cathartic in many ways.

By Ben Tirebuck

Friday 21 May 2021, 02:30PM

Victory for Leicester City against Chelsea may have left their fans, management and Thai owners on cloud nine, but it was the wider positivity that the occasion brought to the game that many are celebrating.

Played out in saturated conditions, the game was largely uneventful for 60 minutes until the Foxes’ Belgian midfielder Youri Tielemans unleashed a sensational 25-yard strike which turned out to be the winner.

The wonder strike seemed to awaken the game and in the final minutes high drama ensued courtesy of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel’s brilliance and the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

The elation of Leicester fans at the final whistle was incredible and utterly understandable, likewise the sheer joy of the players and management team – it is, to borrow the often over-used cliche, what football is all about and even the most cold-hearted of cynics couldn’t have failed to be warmed after watching all those of a Leicester persuasion dancing around like giddy children.

“It is such an amazing feeling, in particular as a British coach,” Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers told the BBC post-match.

“I have grown up watching this all my life and to eventually be here and be a winner in the FA Cup is special.”

The victory was extra poignant for the club’s Thai owners. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, founder of duty free heavyweight King Power Group, bought the club in 2010 and set the goals of winning the Premier League and FA Cup, the two titles they had never achieved at the time.

The Foxes created history of course in 2016 when they won the Premier League at odds of 5000-1.

However, tragedy struck in October 2018 when Vichai was killed in a helicopter crash outside Leicester’s home ground.

“I know this was a dream of Khun Vichai’s, so to be able to deliver that today is a good feeling,” Rodgers said on the club’s website, dedicating the win to the late Thai owner.

Fans are back

Saturday’s final, however, provided cheer and optimism far beyond just those connected to Leicester City Football Club.

The occasion took on a more significant meaning given the challenging and turbulent times of late and seemed to be very much a victory for the game of football itself. It appeared to restore faith for many after a tough 12 months or so.

It was the first major sporting event that permitted fans to attend since the COVID-19 pandemic struck 14 months ago with 22,000 spectators creating an atmosphere more akin to three or four times that.

As great as the advanaces in technology have been and continue to be in providing “fake” crowd noise on TV, you simply cannot beat the human touch and interaction which was witnessed constantly during the final – ironic jeers, sarcastic applause, spontaneous reactions beat the pre-programmed sound desk anyday of the week.

Hearing and seeing fan involvement reminded one exactly how soulless any sport is without it and it was a delight to behold. It also no doubt got hundreds of thousands of fans of other teams nationwide excited that live participation is back on after having been starved of it for so long.

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Fair competition

Another key thing that Leicester’s triumph certainly achieved was a shot across the bows of those advocating the recently ill-fated ESL.

Chelsea were among the clubs to sign up to the failed project last month that would have created a closed shop for the elite with no chance of fair competition for others via a promotion or relegation system.

Leicester epitomsed why such a structure is so important with their league win in 2016 and again on Saturday. They are very much upsetting the usual order of the “big six” clubs in England, sitting fifth in the Premier League at time of press with one game of the season remaining and on course to qualify for Champions League football next season. Regardless of where they finish they have been in the top-four spots of the league for 71 of the past 74 game weeks across two seasons, an achievement of consistency and progress that speaks for itself.

“The success of this team and club is getting to positions like this and competing,” commented Rodgers.

“The so-called bigger clubs are expected to win but our success is competing and if we can perform like today we can go and win,” he added.

“After everything that has happened this year, I’m sure there were people hoping from a neutral perspective that we could go on and upset the odds.”

That they certainly did. It is what makes the beautiful game so special, in particular the FA Cup where the unexpected often happens. It may not have been a David versus Goliath match-up but it did reiterate the notion of competition where the win is attainable for all.

Special bond

It also demonstrated the special bond the Leicester owners have with the club.

Despite being initially reluctant, current club chairman Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha, son of the late Vichai, was eventually coaxed by players and management onto the pitch to join in the wild celebrations after Saturday’s success and the warmth and respect between him, players, management and fans was clear for all to see.

It was genuinely heartwarming and demonstrated what the relationship between all involved at a football club should be like – harmony, sincerity, respect and, ultimately, fun. There is no doubt many onlookers would have gazed with envy at a dynamic that much maligned owners from the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal can only dream of.

Even good sportsmanship was on show last Saturday as Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel ordered his squad to stay on the pitch after the game and applaud their opponents receiving the trophy and their winners medals.

Typically, disgruntled coaches on the losing side over the years have stormed off the pitch and taken their troops with them at the final whistle so it was surprisingly refreshing and rewarding to see the German’s stance, something that should be applauded in itself.

Ultimately, Saturday’s final may not have been the greatest game in the competition’s long and colourful history but the occasion and what it stood for was of huge importance. It was a day when new hope was installed in the game, in the future, when long absent and much missed traditional values resurfaced, a day when we collectively remembered why football matters and why it is loved so much by so many.

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