Sport is an incredible thing. Often the great leveller in life, the heavyweight favourite can be reduced to an also-ran with one moment of glory, one costly mistake, one error in judgement. It is the hope and possibility we cling to every week but in a multi-billion dollar industry slushed with funds where the rich get richer, fans grow weary and cynical. But not in 2016 – this is the year of the underdog, the broken curse, the season for the downtrodden and forgotten.
There is no rhyme nor reason for this conversion of sporting phenomenon across the global landscape. These outfits are so maligned they require Hollywood productions to foresee their success decades in advance (see Charlie Sheen in Major League and Kevin Costner in Draft Day). Despite the prolonged droughts and endless disappointments, we the fan keep coming back hoping against hope that a miracle could happen.
Five narratives stand out above all others, so different in their own context but strike a parallel chord of pure romance. In May, Tottenham Hotspur went to visit bitter London rivals Chelsea for a midweek trip to Stamford Bridge where only a win would extended the English Premier League title another week. Taking a 2-0 first half lead, Spurs would lose the advantage and their heads to draw 2-2 in a spiteful match to see the Leicester City players celebrate wildly at Jamie Vardy’s house. History was made.
Beginning the campaign at 5000-1 outsiders with bookmakers, the Foxes hired coach Claudio Ranieri who was fresh off a sacking from the Greek national team, many pinned the plucky Midlands team for relegation. With a combination of grit, desire and hard work, the veteran Italian moulded a team that would not buckle under pressure – they embraced it. The EPL is not designed for this to happen, the elite are always able to buy their way out of trouble and cherrypick the best but this time Leicester would prevail.
Only weeks later, the Cleveland Cavaliers broke the curse of a city debilitated by sporting woe. The magnificent ESPN 30 For 30 documentary Believeland offered a brief glimpse and insight from those not au fait with the the place that became a punchline for failure. Making news for all the wrong reasons when Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, neither the Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Cavaliers or the now defunct Cleveland Barons in the NHL provided any release to the Ohio town by the sea.
When LeBron James made that comeback to the NBA franchise, returning home after a spiteful switch from the Miami Heat to bring that club a championship, many knew this would be the limited window where the impossible could be possible. Coming up against a rampant Golden State Warriors packed with talent from Steph Curry to Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, the Cavs prevailed in an epic Finals series. They were a joke no more. Cue scenes of delirium.
As if the Major League Baseball team drew from that success, riding the crest of a wave that could not be extinguished by a lakeside flame, the Indians would face the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. For the MLB this is a no-lose situation, seeing one team in Cleveland attempt to win it all for the first time since 1948 while the Cubs have had to wait 108 years – 1908 was their moment in the sunshine. There is not a supporter of that franchise who was alive when they were champions.
The Cubs were central to the screenplay of the 1989 classic adventure sequel Back to the Future Part II. The protagonist Marty McFly traveled to the year 2015 to see the Chicago team win the World Series, an event that sparked his desire to take the Sports Almanac and live a life of wealth back in 1985. If only the creators knew how close to reality they were some 27 years ago….
Closer to home, three Grand Final winners would be making history with two of those having to wait generations to make it happen. The AFL’s forgotten team the Western Bulldogs defied a litany of injuries, including their inspirational captain Bob Murphy to squeeze into 7th place on the ladder. Written off before a ball was bounced, they knocked out the West Coast Eagles in WA, beat Hawthorn at the MCG who were three-time defending champions, outfought competition hotshots GWS in Sydney before overcoming the Swans on the big day. They could add to their one trophy back in 1954.
The following night, the Cronulla Sharks earned it the hard way to beat the Melbourne Storm at a packed ANZ Stadium. That premiership drought was 50 years in the making and the people of the Shire in Sydney’s south now had a team they could genuinely be proud of, even if the conduct of some of their players on and off the field left a bit to be desired. Not that they could care, and who could blame them? They said waiting for the Sharks to win a title was like leaving the porchlight on for Harold Holt. Guess what, Harold came back! Pandemonium ensued.
And a story that flew under the radar months earlier would be Adelaide United, the one and only South Australian franchise of the Hyundai A-League who came from nowhere to steal a march on the rest. Without a Grand Final win to show for their efforts, being crushed in consecutive deciders 6-0 and 1-0 to bitter rivals Melbourne Victory 8 and 9 seasons ago respectively, the Reds went from rock bottom after 8 rounds to take pole position on the final matchday and progress all the way to Adelaide Oval where they took out the Western Sydney Wanderers 3-1.
Throw in Portugal’s incredible triumph at the European Championships for good measure with a number of other heartwarming stories during the Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics, and this has been a 12 month period to remember fondly. But what about the National Football League, is there another twist in the tale to come? The NFL’s showpiece decider won’t come until February 2017 in which case the romance could be lost, yet the sport could seriously do with a fairytale.
The Denver Broncos victory over the Panthers earlier in the year came down to a stellar defensive effort that shut down the opposing quarterbacks, doing so for the divisional championship agains the New England Patriots and Tom Brady before repeating the feat to embarrass Cam Newton. With Peyton Manning going out on top, it was the best way to bookend a fabulous career, but romance, a fairytale, achievement of the underdog? Not quite.
While the Browns won’t be adding to Cleveland’s silverware cabinet anytime soon, unable to register a regular season victory, is there a franchise who could act as a bolt from the blue? The Oakland Raiders appear to be creating something special and with a young team in Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Michael Crabtree they might be on the verge of going where they haven’t been since 1983 to take it all.
The Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans join the Browns by never appearing in an NFL decider with the longest drought in the sport residing with the Arizona Cardinals. 1948 was Big Red’s crowning moment of glory and with a roster featuring Larry Fitzgerald and quarterback Carson Palmer, Bruce Arians’ outfit is not designed for the future – their collective age intimates they should be challenging right here, right now.
Perhaps it is the Minnesota Vikings who can bring the romance back to football? 1969 was their championship window and topping the NFC North with a QB rejected by the Philadelphia Eagles in Sam Bradford, they would be a remarkable against-the-odds story. In the wake of their painful exit at home to the Seattle Seahawks last season when a simple 3-point conversion would have ousted the Legion of Boom, they have experienced enough heartache for one lifetime.
So who is it going to be? The Raiders, the Cardinals, the Vikings? Let us know in the comments who would be your NFL fairytale in the playoffs this season. Every other sport have had their moment, surely it is the National Football League’s turn to tap into the magic and see a sporting miracle happen.