Put the words “Hal Robson Kanu” in your Google search box at any point before July 1, 2016, and chances are you would’ve been a bit more knowledgeable about two cult footballing heroes from Manchester United and Arsenal, and a sentient, particularly evil, supercomputer. People with a greater span of attention (read: the ones born before the 1990s), might have noticed the story about a middling to average Welsh striker, currently on a journey to nowhere, having seen his nine-year contract at Reading expire at the end of June.
So, when the fates conspired to put the Belgian defenders Thomas Meunier, Jason Denayer and living walking proof of Plan B, Marouane Fellaini, in the same space as Robson-Kanu, what should really have happened was what should happen every time a multi-million-pound rated footballer (they measure them in money these days) goes up against a boy just living his dream, chuntering through the lower leagues. Robson-Kanu should have tried, and tried hard, but failed.
Instead, he invoked a footballing God. He turned, Cruyff-esque, and took every single one of those players out of the equation with his enchantment. Missing wasn’t even on the agenda, and superstar goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was left as vexed as his much vaunted teammates.
Cue, the Underdog cartoon theme song.
In a relatively joyless year, sports delivered
2016 has been many things, largely good but mostly terrifying, even more so than similar artificially stipulated time periods tend to be (let’s not even start on time) and while it would seem to have largely left us bereft of hope and sucked clean of all joy, the ones with half an eye on the sporting pitch would have noticed a curious pattern emerge. On many key sporting occasions this year, the power of money and disaffected athletes branded head-to-toe had faltered, and in some cases, collapsed under its own intumescence.
At many moments, the Underdog theme song had blared loud and proud.
The Euros have a past history of providing us with underdog-related joy. In 1992, a Denmark squad fresh from the beach (they qualified at the last minute because of Yugoslavia‘s war-related disqualification) had shocked the world by beating Marco van Basten’s Netherlands and Jurgen Klinsmann’s Germany in the final. In 2004, an obdurate, albeit soporific, Greece had shocked the footballing world by snatching the title from hosts Portugal.
And in 2016, tiny Iceland stepped up as Chief Underdogs, very literally loud and definitely proud.
Iceland’s rapid and systematic growth story had been well covered by eminent journalists in the build-up to the tournament, but little was expected from them apart from valiant participation. Two unlikely draws and a thrilling victory later, they were facing mighty, pre-ordained champions (Every. Single. Time.), England in the Round of 16. Their story was fairytale-ish enough with having to add superstar-heavy England to the list of scalps, but they did just that. Tiny Iceland with its 330,000 people, and brilliant clapping, booming, Viking-invoking support. They wrote their own headlines.
All aboard the Leicester City bandwagon
In some ways, support from the outside for an underdog country, team or individual can veer dangerously close to a faux patronizing, overly sentimental one. But in a year particularly short of joy, the tendency to join a happy bandwagon shouldn’t be begrudged. Leicester City Football Club had the happiest, most spirited and passionate bandwagon in all of England, perhaps the world, for one season. And the world, barring North London, climbed on with glee.
Each of Leicester’s stars’ stories have been shared widely, from Andy King’s journey through all the leagues to the absolute pinnacle, to Jamie Vardy getting substituted early just four seasons ago to meet his probation officer’s deadline, to Riyad Mahrez’s step into mega-star territory from French lower league oblivion, to Claudio Ranieri finally getting the respect due to him as a statesman manager, one of the last of his kind.
Journeyman players from Algeria, Austria, Denmark, Jamaica, Germany and England showed that old-fashioned values such as hard work, pure unadulterated desire and playing as a team still had some stock in this era. A county that would ironically go on to vote for Brexit had come together, causing mini-earthquakes every time a goal was scored or a match was won.
That Manchester United, for instance, spent more on players under Louis van Gaal than Leicester have in their entire 132-year history only further showcases just how unlikely this nine-month long dream was.
This shouldn’t happen, this never happens. But it did.
In Brazil, considered the real home of football by many, tiny, unfancied Chapecoense had been writing their own fairytale. The tiny club had been promoted to the top division just three seasons earlier, and many of their current players were those who had stood by the club through all their troubles and hauled them up through the divisions.
A stellar run in the Copa Sudamericana (the equivalent of the Europa League) had seen them storm into the finals. Their beautiful story was to have a sad end, however, as the plane carrying the team and officials for the biggest game in their history crashed near Medellin, Colombia, killing 71 people.
David and Goliath stories abounded around the world
The world of sports was littered with numerous examples of the unheralded pushing their own and others’ boundaries, thwarting establishments, money and circumstance. Kosovo played football under their own flag for the first time, after many hours of chaos as Fifa finally ratified their own players hours before a game. An Olympic team contested at the greatest sporting exhibition on Earth under a refugee flag, a sign of our times as sad as it is full of hope.
Over in the United States, in a pre-Trumpian world, Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series after a 108-year wait, in what some have billed as the greatest game of baseball ever played. By which it is assumed that not all the people present at the stadium got bored.
Carlos Braithwaite, a relatively unknown, strapping Barbadian blew the stuffing out of a cocky England (them again) team as he smashed Ben Stokes for four sixes off the first four balls of his final over to lead a massively unsteady West Indies team to victory in the T20 Cricket World Cup.
Closer home, a brilliant Bengaluru FC made history by becoming the first Indian club to progress to the final of the AFC Cup, where they were beaten by Al-Quwa Al-Jawaiya, an Iraqi club.
Mariyappan Thangavelu (gold) and Devendra Jhajharia (gold), Deepa Malik (silver) and Varun Bhati (bronze) won laurels at the Paralympics, with Thangavelu setting a world record in the process. Such is the apathy toward Indian athletes and sportsmen, apart from the primary sport, every single athlete at the Rio Summer Olympics and the Rio Paralympics was an inspiration to a nation yet unable to process the sacrifices required to reach this level in Indian sport.
2017 may revert to type (much of 2016 did as well, with Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus remaining boringly victorious), but the joy and incredulity it provided will live long in the memory.
And when we do invoke them, the Underdog theme song will play in the background.