Johannesburg - Football coaches are not lovable creatures. The instinct is never to give them a warm hug and pass them a chocolate bar.
Descriptions that go with them include being cold, scary, ferocious, crazy, eccentric, studious and arrogant. Whatever the case may be, they are normally forceful personalities who do not invite affection.
Claudio Ranieri defies this stereotype. Over the past 18 months, the recently sacked manager of Leicester City wormed himself into the hearts of football lovers the world over.
Melted the hearts
He cut a grandfatherly figure that sometimes bordered on the clownish. One writer even compared him to an Italian granddad in a cute pizza or pasta advert.
The world’s love for Ranieri was to grow in leaps and bounds as he guided Leicester City to one of the most incredible fairytales in modern football history.
His infectious joy that came with every goal scored and the leaps after every victory, or the improbable draws, made for indelible memories for millions of viewers across the globe.
His media conferences were often peppered with priceless quotes, which melted the hearts of the notoriously vicious British media.
In contrast to the philosophical musings of the Alex Fergusons and the hubristic comments of the José Mourinhos came his intelligent, meaningful humorous nature.
“My team is like an orchestra. To play the symphony correctly, I need some of the boom boom boom, but I also need some tweet, and sometimes the tweet and boom go well together ... Sometimes all you can hear is the boom, sometimes only the tweet. That is not good music,” was one memorable quote.
As the impossible became the possible and Leicester seemed destined to embarrass those who predicted that they would run out of steam, he likened his team to the 1990s movie hero Forrest Gump.
“Why can’t we continue to run, run, run? We are like Forrest Gump. Leicester is Forrest Gump,” he said.
Love for team
Perhaps the ones that the press will miss most are the “dilly ding, dilly dong” quotes, such as the one when the dream was complete: “We are in the Champions League, dilly ding, dilly dong. It’s fantastic, terrific.”
As the world reeled after news of his sacking a few days ago, Ranieri on Friday night sent a message to his team and supporters.
“My dream died. After the euphoria of last season and being crowned Premier League champions, all I was dreaming of was staying at Leicester, the club I love for always. Sadly, this was not to be.”
He spoke of his love for the team and the love he got from the supporters, who “took me into your hearts from day one.
“It was a time of wonderfulness and happiness that I will never forget. It’s been a pleasure and an honour to be a champion with all of you.”
The levels of anger generated by Ranieri’s sacking would make one believe Leicester was again in the race for top honours rather than languishing in the relegation zone with five wins and 14 losses from 25 games.
With the season’s end on the horizon – and games against big guns Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester City – relegation is a reality.
In spite of Ranieri being the conductor of last season’s great orchestra, the management had no choice.
Sacked as champion
He clearly had no idea how to again instill the spirit of 2015/16 and he also seemed to have lost the change room that so believed in him less than 12 months ago.
Even the fans were divided, with many saying he should have been retained even if it meant going to the lower division and working back to the Premier League.
After his sacking, there were calls for the Leicester stadium to be named after him and for a statue of him to be erected there.
One of the millions who mourned the end of Ranieri’s dream was a man who was also sacked as champion when Chelsea lost its groove a few seasons ago.
Mourinho took to Instagram to praise Ranieri for achieving the “most beautiful thing in the Premier League and one of most beautiful in football history”.
“Keep smiling, amico,” Mourinho encouraged the jilted Italian.