It’s back. The new Premier League season starts on August 13, just as fans finally stop shaking their heads in disbelief at the events of last season. Will the old order now reassert itself? Or has Leicester City’s staggering success somehow cracked it open?
We shall see. But here’s a different kind of prediction. The manager who wins the title is going to be a Catholic, and probably a devout one.
Who says so? The form book. The Premier League winners over the past three seasons have all been coached by staunch Catholics: Claudio Ranieri at Leicester, José Mourinho at Chelsea and Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City.
Indeed, if you count Roberto Mancini’s success with Manchester City in 2012, it’s four out of the last five. Mancini was an altar boy in his childhood home of Ancona and is a regular Mass-goer.
Taking the decade so far, and so including Chelsea’s victory under Carlo Ancelotti in 2010, then only Sir Alex Ferguson (now retired) bucks the trend. Ancelotti is the son of a farm labourer from northern Italy. He has told journalists about how much the faith handed on by his parents formed him, that he has a devotion to Padre Pio and that he prays every day (though not about football: “I think God has better things to do”).
And what if we throw in Arsène Wenger? Here is another former altar boy who, when growing up in the Alsace region of France, needed to ask permission of his priest to excuse him from evening Vespers in order to play football. “I am forever grateful for the values my religion has given me,” he has said.
Add Wenger’s multiple successes to Mourinho’s pre-2010 triumphs, and then the rulership of Catholics over the Premier League era is more or less complete – with the towering exception, once again, of Sir Alex and Kenny Dalglish (who though he played for Celtic is not a Catholic).
But back to Leicester and Ranieri in particular. This is a man who up until last season might have merited a short footnote in the history of English football. Now he is the kindly hero of the one chapter people will never tire of reading.
Earlier this year Ranieri told the Telegraph that he goes to church as often as he can and prays every night. He visits the tomb of St Rita, the patron saint of impossible causes, in Umbria. His family matters enormously to him: famously, on the day Chelsea played Tottenham in the match that would wrap up the title for Leicester, he flew back to Rome to have lunch with his mother. Ranieri also often speaks of his players with what sounds like paternal care.
José Mourinho is a different kind of character: edgier, more enigmatic, more intense. His relations with Wenger (and with Pep Guardiola, of whom more later) are frosty to say the least. But he has always been very open and direct about his faith.
He once told the BBC: “I pray a lot. I am Catholic, I believe in God. I try to be a good man so He can have a bit of time to give me a hand when I need it.” And to the Telegraph: “I believe totally, clearly.”
Mourinho has been a World Food Programme ambassador and, with his wife, Tami, a supporter of a Catholic food programme back home in Portugal. “We want our son and daughter to understand how privileged we are, and to understand that other people need support,” he has explained.
What then of Manuel Pellegrini, who holds a degree in civil engineering from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile? A Spanish journalist speaking to CNN had this to say about Pellegrini and his assistant, Rubén Cousillas: “Cousillas is always praying on the sidelines. They have many pictures of the Virgin Mary and of different saints. Both men are very religious.”
So what might be going on here? Is there some kind of Catholic way to Premier League success? As the case of Ranieri suggests, perhaps Catholicism lends itself to a certain form of paternalism – a subtle mix of firm authority with indulgent care –which is well suited to the management of English football teams. Or might it be too fanciful to suggest that the experience of being part of a universal, ecumenically minded Church makes it easier for these men to nurture a sense of togetherness among the multi-ethnic squads of the modern era?
Or perhaps there is even something in the Catholic sensibility that allows them to fuse the pursuit of joy with the single-minded pursuit of excellence. All of these coaches display a fierce work ethic that would have had Max Weber scratching his head. It is as if Genesis, with its “You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow”, is forever ringing in their ears.
As he so often does, maybe Chesterton holds the key: “The true object of all human life is play,” he wrote. “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.”
On the other hand, perhaps, this is all just a trick of the eye and the truth is that these managers are simply rolling off a production line from what are, after all, some of the great soccer nations.
Maybe. But setting aside its significance, what are chances of the Catholic hegemony continuing? Well, Ranieri is still in place at Leicester. Wenger’s reign at Arsenal, last season’s runners-up, is stretching into its 21st season. Third-placed Spurs remain under the leadership of the Argentinian, Mauricio Pochettino, also reportedly a man of faith, though not practising.
Mourinho, sacked by Chelsea last season in the middle of a disastrous title defence, will be back with a bang at Manchester United. Meanwhile, Pellegrini has been replaced at Manchester City by Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola’s background is Catholic, though he is not now religious. He was born in Sanpedor, 70 miles from Barcelona, where he went to the local Catholic school and played the role of an angel in village Nativity plays. He learnt his first words of English, a language we will get used to hearing him use with ease during press conferences, from a Brother Virgilio at his next school, La Salle de Manresa.
Guardiola is another workaholic with a strong attachment to family life and a social conscience: in his first season managing Barcelona, he decided that money collected from players’ fines should go to a charitable organisation (instead of going to team meals as was the custom). The funds were donated to the Sant Joan de Déu Foundation, which investigates Rett Syndrome.
Elsewhere among the favourites, Chelsea are now managed by Antonio Conte, another Italian with a no less fierce belief in team spirit and hard work. And Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, though not Catholic, is also a sincere Christian.
In the end, it is all probably just an eye-catching coincidence. Premier League chairmen on the hunt for success will not be asking candidates to recite the Angelus during job interviews any time soon. Nevertheless, come next May, look out for a Catholic manager yet again taking a bow as the champion of England.