Let’s talk about trolls for a minute.
They’re so clever, aren’t they?
Now, I know what you might be thinking: “Christian, even you get trolled? But you’re just the left back from little Leicester City — champions of England — with the funny sounding last name. Why don’t they go pick on somebody else?”
Oh, yes. It’s true. I get trolled. But let me tell you a story about these people.
Last summer, I decided to retire from the Austrian national team after 10 years of service. It felt like the perfect time. I had helped Austria qualify for Euro 2016 and had played in every match in the tournament, I was a Premier League bloody champion, and Leicester City would be going into the Champions League in the new season.
At 30 I am not quite a grandpa, but I didn’t want to deal with the grind of international duty anymore. It was a new generation’s turn. So one morning last June, I decided to have a retirement ceremony fit for a footballer of my stature. I put on a nice button-down shirt, combed my hair, and set up an iPhone camera in my kitchen.
I spoke from the heart straight to the camera in my native German, explaining why I was retiring, and thanking the fans. Then I posted the video to Facebook. Later that night, I was feeling nostalgic, so I read through some of the comments. Of course, 90% of them were really supportive and touching.
The other 10% were the typical nonsense.
But then I read this one comment, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had to read it twice.
“Typical footballer,” the troll said. “He has no reason to care. Just look at the painting behind him!”
Behind me in the video was my favorite painting in the world. It’s an enormous white canvas with wild dashes of paint all over it — yellow, red, blue, black.
The troll thought it was an original Jackson Pollock.
Pollock paintings sell for millions.
What he didn’t notice was that in the bottom right corner of the canvas, it was signed by the true genius who created it.
Ethan is my stepson. He made this particular abstract masterpiece when he was six years old. I couldn’t stop laughing. I asked my wife, “Bloody hell, how much do you think we can get for this?”
Some people look at a canvas and see a rare work of art. Some people see the work of a first-grader. People see what they want to see. Which brings me, quite naturally, to Leicester City.
What do you see when you look at us? Well, as I write this, we are currently in 11th place in the Premier League. But we are also in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. When we started this season, we had the same initial goal as we did last season: Don’t get relegated.
Unfortunately, the season started terribly for us. It felt like all the luck we had last year had turned against us, especially on set pieces. Last season, the ball would strike the bar and go out. Early this season, the ball would strike the bar and go in every time. The narrative right away became, “They’re not working as hard. They’re still enjoying the title.”
The thing is, when you’re not getting results you’re actually working twice as hard. When you’re winning, everything is fun. You’re never tired. When you’re losing, everything feels like work. Your body feels more sore. You’re more mentally drained. Everything compounds, and you lose a bit of confidence. I would wake up in the morning and my whole body would be aching, and I’d read these headlines about us being complacent, and not wanting to play for the manager, and it would drive me crazy.
Before the season, the same people in the media had also been saying, “Just don’t embarrass England in the Champions League.”
Just don’t embarrass us. Like we’re a joke. And what did we do? We only lost one match in the group stage and finished top.
Of course, that does have an effect in the league when you’re a club our size. I won’t lie to you — as a player, it’s incredibly difficult to play in the Champions League on a Wednesday night, having all that adrenaline coursing through your veins while playing on the biggest stage in football, and then coming home and trying to fall asleep so you can recover and resume your normal training schedule for the weekend league matches.
After a Champions League game, I usually can’t get to sleep until 4 a.m. It’s impossible. Especially when you win. We are still a relatively small squad. Most of the side playing in the Champions League games were playing on the weekend.
Still, I must remind you of the “Pollock” in my kitchen. After the first 14 games, the narrative was that Leicester City was a mess and that our players had quit trying, even though we were doing well in Europe.
Expectations can change everything.
When we lost in Sevilla in the first leg of the knockout stage and Claudio was sacked, it felt like the whole world turned against us for a minute. I couldn’t believe the things I was reading. Complete lies. We read that the players had gotten Claudio fired. I started getting those sweet little snake emojis every time I posted something on Twitter. I stopped counting at 200,000 or so.
In reality, Claudio and I had a great relationship. As soon as I heard that he had been fired, I sent him a text message thanking him for the season of our lives and wishing him all the best.
Everything changed during the Liverpool game at the King Power four days later. Before we came out, I was actually nervous about what the reception was going to be. We were reading so many things that it was impossible to know how the fans would react.
Then we walked out, and the whole stadium was behind us. And that’s when I realized that none of the negativity had been coming from real Leicester fans. It had been coming from the trolls. The supporters were behind us all the way. I got goose bumps two times during that match. And listen, I’ve seen it all in football. I’ve played against Real Madrid in the Champions League. I’ve won the Premier League, and I’ve been relegated.
I’m like a skydiver who’s jumped out of a plane 1,000 times. It’s really hard for me to get goose bumps on a football pitch. But I got them twice during the Liverpool match.
The first was midway through the first half, when I made a tackle on the byline, right next to the fans. I don’t know what came over me. It wasn’t even a hard tackle. I just stuck my foot out to fish for the ball and it ricocheted off the Liverpool player and went out for a throw-in. But I turned to the crowd and … bloody hell … I just let out a roar.
And they roared right back. They went crazy.
After reading so much negativity and lies for so many weeks, I just wanted them to know how much we cared. So one of the moments I’ll never forget from my career is winning a throw-in.
The other moment was in the 65th minute, when everyone in the crowd pulled out their phones, put on their flashlights and held them in the air while they sang, “Ranieriiiiiiii Whooooaaa-oooo-oooaaaa,” in tribute to Claudio.
We were up 3–0, and the ball went out, and for a second, I just lost it. I was looking up into the crowd, and it was a beautiful moment. Football is a really tough business. But nothing can change what we accomplished last season, and what the fans and players all still feel in their hearts. I think our struggles this season in a difficult Premier League show just how incredible it was that we won the title.
Our season changed in that moment, I think. Despite everything that happened, the atmosphere in the King Power was never negative. Our real fans have been behind us the entire way. So when we played the second leg against Sevilla two weeks later, I completely believed that we were going to win. We all believed it.
In the first match in Spain, we were chasing them all over the pitch. We simply couldn’t get possession, and that’s the worst feeling in football. But we knew it would be a much different story at the King Power. Craig Shakespeare, the new manager, has been with us the whole way. He saw how we won the title last season, and he had a simple message. He told us to go out and play our game — which is aggressive and pressing and fast — and not to worry about what Sevilla were doing.
So we just went out and played. Everyone asks, “How did you do it? What changed? What were the tactics?”
The answer is simple. Nothing changed. We just went out and played with no fear, and the game went our way. It couldn’t have been more perfect, because our first goal was like everything that we had been missing in the first half of the season.
Riyad Mahrez put a great ball into the box and it hit Wes Morgan’s thigh and went in. He didn’t even see it. But he was aggressive, and he was in the right spot, and it just went in. It was vintage Leicester City. That’s when we knew we had them.
“Just don’t embarrass us.”
Now we’re the only English team left standing in the final eight.
It is an incredible time for our club, and especially our fans, who have been through such a roller coaster this season. The next stop is the Vicente Calderón in Madrid. I do not know where this crazy journey will end. How can I predict it when we won the Premier Fuching League? Nothing is off-limits now. Can we win the whole thing?
I don’t know, why not?
What I can tell you is that I am definitely not nervous. I’ve already been part of a squad at Schalke that beat another Madrid club in their own stadium. (Seriously, look it up. I even scored!)
But, personally, my main priority might surprise you.
The No. 1 goal is the same as it was at the start of last season, and the same as it has always been: Make sure Leicester is not relegated. Despite all our success in the Champions League, I don’t want to see this club go down, because I’ve seen what it can do to supporters. Six years before I won the Premier League, I had been relegated with Bochum in Germany. I saw how hard the fans took it. I saw grown men crying. I know how tough it can be to come back from that. Bochum has not returned to the top tier of the Bundesliga since.
That’s why I went crazy when I made that simple tackle against Liverpool. At the time, we were near the relegation zone. It felt like people had lost faith in us. We had the season of our lives the year before, and we were in real danger of ruining the fairy tale.
I knew my stepson was watching back home in New York City, where my family lives. He gets up to watch every Leicester game, even if it’s seven in the morning. As you now know, he is a genius artist. But he’s also a great little sportsman. He always Skypes me after every match. The only problem for him is that the Champions League games are on in the afternoon in America, and he’s still at school.
There is one game that he could watch, though.
It’s the only one that falls on a Saturday.
June 3. Champions League Final.
What? Why not?