The postponement of Manchester United’s final match of the season against Bournemouth after a “suspect package”–one deemed to be "incredibly lifelike but not viable"–was found in the stands before kick off will have little impact on important Premier League matters, but it was a reminder that soccer is acutely aware that it is an attractive target for terrorists.
The match on Sunday would have been played before a crowd of more than 75,000. The sight of the stadium being evacuated was a reminder that soccer has been a terrorist target in recent months.
Police later confirmed the package was a fake bomb left following a training exercise. The resulting paranoia and fear, however, is a product of all that has preceded Sunday in recent days and months.
On Friday, ISIS gunmen attacked a Real Madrid fan club in Iraq, killing 16. More significantly for the Euros, three suicide bombers attempted to enter the Stade de France, where 79,000 spectators were watching national team play Germany, during the terrorist attacks around Paris on November 13. The choice of the date might well have been soccer related. It was France’s only home soccer game at its national stadium between early June 2015 and the end of March this year.
In the last few weeks, security experts have gone public with their fears for the Euros this summer.
Frédéric Péchenard, a senior French police officer turned politician, said the fan zone at the base of the Eiffel Tower in Paris would “offer terrorists a chance for a massacre.”
Speaking to French radio at the end of April, he went on: “100,000 people under the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of Paris, the symbol that terrorists want to try to hit Paris. It’s madness."
Last week, Rob Wainwright, a Briton who is the head of Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency, told Die Welt, a German newspaper, he was “extremely concerned” that the Euros, and the fans who will come to watch matches and see the French sights, offered an “attractive target” to terrorists.
He said: "It is shockingly easy to attack soft targets like cafes, restaurants or a concert hall.”
Old Trafford on Sunday offered a reminder that soccer fears it is under attack.
The game there, which was supposed to be part of the final round of matches, will be rescheduled, but not for Monday. Manchester City’s 1-1 draw at Swansea means United would need to win and make up a goal-differential deficit of 18 to take fourth place and a Champions League spot, and United is really playing for fifth, needing a point to outlast Southampton and net a place in the Europa League at the very least.
As for what transpired on the field in the Premier League's season finales, there were a distinct set of winners and losers:
Spurs find a way to finish behind Arsenal
The final day’s biggest loser, in every sense, was Tottenham. Spurs looked like a team feeling sorry for itself as it was humiliated, 5-1, at relegated Newcastle. Tottenham seemed to have been tossed an undeserved lifeline when Aleksandar Mitrovic was sent off for a psychotic tackle on Kyle Walker after 67 minutes. Yet the 10 Magpies then scored three more goals.
In practical terms, the defeat means little. If United keeps a clean sheet against Bournemouth, Tottenham will not end the season with the league’s best defense. Tottenham’s drop from second to third will cost it $1.87 million in merit money, peanuts in modern soccer. The club still qualifies for the group stage of the Champions League, for the first time. Its probable seeding, in the third tier of the draw, will not change.
Yet once again it has subjected its fans to the prospect of a summer of trolling by Arsenal supporters. Arsenal’s 4-0 victory over Villa meant it overtook Tottenham to finish above its rival for the 21st consecutive season.
With some ungrateful and bored Arsenal fans clamoring for Arsene Wenger’s removal, a finish below Tottenham might have increased the sense of failure. Instead, after Arsenal was eliminated from the title race it started winning.
For Tottenham, the desperate effort to keep up with Leicester seems to have blown the engine. Dele Alli and Mousa Dembélé lost their cools in consecutive matches to draw season-ending suspensions. Tottenham failed to win any of its last four games, surrendering 10 points, any one of which would have ensured it finished above Arsenal.
Spurs have managed the difficult trick of greatly exceeding their fans’ expectations and still handing them a crushing disappointment.
Pep Guardiola can breathe easier
Manchester City gained the point it needed to all but ensure fourth place and a spot in the qualifying round of the Champions League next season. For Pep Guardiola, fears that he would have to build from the Europa League up at the Etihad are allayed, as he takes over after guiding Bayern Munich to its fourth straight Bundesliga title.
Below City, Southampton crushed Crystal Palace, 4-1, to overtake West Ham and grab a provisional spot in the Europa League group stage, depending on Manchester United's outcome against Bournemouth. United needs a point to reclaim fifth and have, at the very least, a guaranteed place in Europe next season.
Ranieri has the last laugh
José Mourinho used to taunt Claudio Ranieri as “a loser.” Who’s laughing now?
In part that is a rhetorical question. When he is managing, Mourinho may tell jokes but he rarely laughs. Ranieri seems able to laugh, even in the bad times and, as Mourinho’s jibe suggests, there have been plenty of them.
Yet Ranieri could be forgiven some private gloating. He might have smiled in December when Chelsea fired his nemesis after Leicester toppled the Blues, and he closed Leicester's incredible season walking through a guard of honor at Stamford Bridge, while owner Roman Abramovich was forced to applaud the man he said would never win the title.
(As an aside, Mourinho might have appeared a loser, but his final compensation from Chelsea might total anywhere between $14 million and $57 million, depending on which British tabloid has the most reliable sources. Mourinho’s reputation as a winner does not seem to be tarnished, if Manchester United really is seriously contemplating making him its next manager.)
What a long strange trip it’s been for Ranieri, whose managerial career has stretched just short of 30 years and has included 16 appointments in five countries. Perhaps Ranieri grew and learned on that journey so that, finally, this season he was prepared to take his chance. On the other hand, despite spells at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, he hasn’t, in truth, been in a position to win a league title very often.
Some of Ranieri’s appointments have been unambiguous disasters, notably at Atlético, Inter Milan and with the Greek national team. Elsewhere his “failures” are more ambiguous. Ranieri is good at promotions from the second division. The 2010 Roma season is the only time a Ranieri team has ever been close enough in the late stages of a top-flight title race to let it slip away. Roma led Serie A until a late season loss to Mourinho’s Inter Milan, it then lost to Inter again in the Italian Cup final.
But Ranieri revived Fiorentina, Roma, Monaco, Chelsea and Valencia. None of the clubs fell away after he left and Valencia and Chelsea went on to periods of sustained success.
At Stamford Bridge, Ranieri took over a sixth-placed team and, in his final season, led it to second–its best finish in 49 years–and the Champions League semis only to be replaced by Mourinho who then won the league with, essentially, Ranieri’s squad. Ranieri steered Valencia to its first trophy, the Copa Del Rey, in 20 years. The season after he left, Héctor Cúper took the team to the Champions League final.
Ranieri builds well. The question has been whether he is too nice a guy to go the final inch. Even after he broke his league title drought this season, that doubt still seems to remain.
Martin Samuel, one of the heavyweight English tabloid soccer writers, criticized Ranieri for allowing his players to squirt Champagne over him in front of the media after Leicester collected its league trophy and beat Everton on May 7. “Put it like this.” Samuel wrote. “They wouldn’t have done it to Sir Alex Ferguson or Fabio Capello.” Ranieri kept smiling but, wrote Samuel, he had allowed his players to show a lack of respect.
Really? Did the New York Giants players who gave Bill Parcells Gatorade showers after each of their 17 victories in the 1986 season, lack respect for their coach? Did the Patriots players who gave Bill Belichick multiple dousings at the end of 2015 Super Bowl, fear their coach any the less?
If Leicester fails to repeat next season, the way the players wasted their Champagne won’t be the reason.
“He keeps everything nice and relaxed,” Leicester striker Jamie Vardy said of the way Ranieri ran Leicester. “Made it a nice place to go in to work and get on with your job.”
As Ranieri and Leicester finally won their long-awaited title this year, they challenged a lot of ideas about modern soccer: how a team is built, how it passes the ball, how it trains and even how to mow the grass. Ranieri provides a particularly heartening correction to ideas about coaches. This season has shown nice guys can finish first and that the Mourinhos can fail.
Howard wins in Everton farewell
Tim Howard played his final and 414th match for Everton, earning his 133rd clean sheet in the process. While chants of "USA! USA!" rang out in the Goodison Park stands after the 3-0 win over relegated Norwich City, Howard addressed his fans, who, like Howard, have endured an otherwise tough season, finishing in 11th place and the bottom half of the table.
For Howard, though, the lasting memory is one he'll surely cherish:
Bookies win despite Leicester's success
The only people who consistently make money from sports betting are the bookmakers. One of their professional challenges is to keep convincing suckers to hand over the cash. In that respect, Leicester’s unexpected triumph should have the bookies smiling.
Even as they pay out the winnings to the few hundred punters who bet on Leicester, the bookies will be mentally counting the extra money they are going to take in over the next few seasons in no-hope bets.
Some of those who bet on Leicester did so at odds of 5,000-to-1. The math will make any bettor salivate: $100 would have made you $500,000.
Of course those weren’t strictly speaking “odds,” since the bookies, foolishly given the 130-year history of the English league, thought there was zero chance of Leicester winning. They were a “price” designed to lure suckers into buying an unattractive product. “Pigs might fly,” one bookmaker wrote on a Leicester betting slip at the start of the season, according to the Financial Times.
The FT reported at the end of April that British bookies said they would lose £50 million ($73 million) if Leicester won the title. The article quoted a spokesman for one on-line bookie as saying it would also have lost money if Chelsea or Manchester City had won the title, but made a profit on Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal. Those are the three clubs with the biggest and, perhaps, most delusional, supporter bases. Bookies can offer prices far below the sane odds on those clubs’ chances and still attract bets.
Even so, one should be skeptical about bookies claiming they would have lost money on the favorites AND on the rank outsiders.
It was almost possible to see the drool forming as bookies told the FT that Leicester’s success “will change the way we offer odds” and that bets on outsiders “will go through the roof.”
Whereas Leicester was quoted at 5,000-1, the best odds on this season’s great escapers, Sunderland, winning the league next season are 750-1. Yet the fans will be lining up to bet their hopes that their clubs can emulate Leicester and they will be joined by many fans of Bournemouth, Watford, West Brom, Crystal Palace and so on who would not have dreamed of making such a bet before this season.
After this most improbable of seasons, the bookies will be crying all the way to the bank.