Skip to content
Ranks FC

The Cinderella Complex: Underdogs, Bandwagons, and Understanding the Human Capacity for Belief

  • 13 February 2023
  • Owen Murray

The story of Cinderella is related to most children as the tale of a beautiful yet disadvantaged young woman who improbably ends up with the resident prince, in the process outdoing a cast of traditionally superior and often villainous competitors. It tells them about the simple significance of being genuine and encourages the discovery of the value of trust and morality. Like many stories created by humanity, we’ve unsurprisingly related it to sports. A ‘Cinderella Team’, like their namesake, wins the hearts of the competition’s faithful following on their incredible run to success and besting of many of the usual favourites in the process. These teams, regardless of their relative size or standing within the game, draw upon a near-mythical reserve of strength and passion to overcome the odds and create another story for the tomes filled with heroic feats. The Cinderella Complex, therefore, demonstrates the human propensity to find an allegiance with such a team despite a lack of previous affiliation or knowledge of their history. In less delicate terms, a bandwagon fan. Through three and a half case studies, this article examines the types of Cinderella teams, their impact on the Cinderella Complex, and the joy they brought to the sport of football.

To analyse a Cinderella team, the concept must first be truly fleshed out. In a study entitled The Appeal of the Underdog conducted by three psychology students at the University of South Florida, subjects were asked to rank their support for three nations’ swimming competitors at the 2004 Olympic Games after being provided with only the names of the countries and their historical medal tally. Overwhelmingly, subjects responded with support for the nation with fewer medals, with Slovenia (6 medals) trouncing Sweden and Belgium (469 and 140 medals, respectively) when set against each nation. Similarly, when the latter two were juxtaposed, Belgium garnered support, again proving the students’ theory that humans will more often support the underdog.

In football, however, a Cinderella team is often not solely viewed over a single race or match. The quality of such a team and the relative expansion of their believers grows exponentially as their meteoric rise continues throughout a season. Their bandwagon fans have the chance to see the side encounter conflict, overcome challenges, and celebrate their successes. The emotional investment in such a team often allows for a sense of freedom that football fans often don’t have. Similarly to the connection American adults traditionally associate with their alma mater, European fans often adopt a club from within their family from the moment they can understand the concept of support for a team. This bond often creates an intense emotional tie to the results of a club, but also means that the person has no real respite from their support. The chance to find a Cinderella club to support as they fight and win against the big guns in a manner the fan’s club might never do is invaluable from an emotional standpoint, and allows that choice of support for a club that some never had been able to tie to a passionate sense of support.

The genesis of such a following stems from several different factors, elements often present in groups within a strong Cinderella candidate. These players, among them the classic Han Solo “Never tell me the odds!”, the philosophical geniuses, and the moment of magic combine to ignite such a united passion in fans that the team seems to draw strength from their newfound supporters as they ascend towards greatness. That said, three (and a half) teams have been evaluated here based on their demonstration of these traits, their success, and the emotional and global impact of their Cinderella runs.

Case Study 1

5000:1 | Leicester City’s Premier League Success

The most famously improbable victory of them all, Leicester City’s Premier League title in the 2015-16 season will live long in the memory of every fan who believes in their team’s ability to win against the odds. The quintessential demonstration of momentum and belief to capitalise on an opportunity not only brought tears to the eyes of lifelong Leicester supporters, but gained the club a global following as well. The 5000:1 odds initially allocated to the chance they’d win the league were similar to the chances of Kim Kardashian winning the presidency in the United States’ 2020 election and the Loch Ness Monster being proven real. The Miracle on Ice checks in at 1000:1 odds. In football, there was no precedent for this sort of phenomenon.

As Leicester’s boys built their title charge throughout the season, key figures and moments won fans over as their teams fell out of the running. There was the iconic It’s eleven! It’s heaven, for Jamie Vardy!, the Okazaki bicycle kick versus Newcastle, and the final Vardy Party as Chelsea faced Tottenham in the match that would eventually seal Leicester’s first-ever title. The emergence of characters like Vardy, all-action midfielder N’golo Kanté, and captain Wes Morgan created a Star Wars-esque story that enabled the Cinderella Complex to take root in so many fans’ hearts. It’s a massive aspect of what makes these teams appealing; the rare choice to select a team to support is not one taken lightly, and Leicester proved the perfect emotional vehicle for fans’ hopes and dreams.

A Cinderella side takes on the burden of fans’ belief – a belief that is usually allocated to their traditional club but is instead given to this project that is almost communal in their desire to win. The “Never Tell Me The Odds” archetype relies less on quality of football and more on the value of narrative to build that belief. This Leicester side’s best players – think Vardy, Kanté, and Riyad Mahrez – were fun and generally likeable footballers in their playing styles, a characteristic that often contributes to the support of such a team. When they scored a late winner or pulled out a result they weren’t supposed to, like a Robert Huth header versus Spurs or the 0-0 tie versus Manchester City after Boxing Day, their new supporters cited the sense of community that the team seemed to maintain until the very end as a reason they wanted the Foxes to win. That’s a vital component of what makes a Cinderella team, and what allows for the generation of support that follows their initial victory.

Case Study 1.5

BELIEVE | Ted Lasso’s Mentality Monsters

The other facet of team personality is often epitomised through six exceedingly simple words: I believe that we will win

This famous chant, often heard echoing from high school football games through to the premier echelons of sport, demonstrates the importance of belief to these Cinderella teams. Nobody wants to see a team who walk out believing they have no chance, and Ted Lasso’s AFC Richmond, albeit a fictional club, demonstrate this concept better than any other side. Without that sense of hope and faith and without the ability to translate their indomitable mentality to their results on the pitch, they would never gather the following that they do. His speech, delivered to the squad before their final, crucial matchday, laid out this cohesive set of beliefs that fans and players alike prescribe to. Simply put, there is no such thing as “the hope that kills you”. In Lasso’s words, it’s the very hope that keeps you going. The capacity to maintain belief in the face of incredible adversity is a vital component of these Cinderella runs and something that fuels a fan’s capacity to continue to support their adopted side.

While the show is often criticised for its comedic premise and lack of focus on football, it beautifully synthesises many of the minute details of these clubs. Like Leicester, Richmond have a devoted fanbase, but the nature of their show in an All or Nothing style filming experience allows for the construction of such a community wherein these characters are able to demonstrate the function and cultural impact of a Cinderella team. That’s what makes sports so special. For all the big money, for all the efforts that owners make to take the chance out of the game, there will forever be an element of surprise and reliance on belief that decides matches. It’s the magic of the game that truly governs the creation of the moments we dub “Hollywood endings”. For every Messi, Jordan, or Babe Ruth, there’s a John McCarthy in MLS Cup. A David Tyree catch in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots to end their undefeated season. An Éder goal in the 2016 Euros final. Jerzy Dudek in another penalty shootout to seal the Miracle of Istanbul. When we romanticise sports, we think of those athletes who inspire us to be incredible from inconspicuous positions. It’s those heroes who we’ll tell the next generation about. 

When we tell these stories, we create those people who tell us that we too are heroes in waiting. We tell stories of unlikely heroes, inspirations to our psyche, to fuel that hero within ourselves. Yes, it’s there in Ted Lasso and Rudy, but it’s also there in Spider-Man, in The Lord of the Rings, and in Forrest Gump. It’s an idea that weaves itself through everything we’ve created. We search for that definition of the quickening of the heartbeat, the rush of adrenaline that comes with such possibilities, as it appears in sports. We love these tales for their beauty, but an often unrecognised facet of that is the players who wreck those patterns, who do something they’re not supposed to do. We love sports because anyone can be a hero, and if there’s anything more human that such a concept, I don’t know what it is.

Case Study 2

Poetic Genius | Frenkie, Donny, Matthijs and The Ajax Boys

Another sort of Cinderella complex is observed in the romantic rise of tactical darlings like Erik ten Hag’s 2018-19 Ajax side. Their magical run to the Champions League semifinal re-exposed a club to the world who had been forgotten in the upper echelons of modern elite competition, and that awakening of a sleeping giant was the catalyst for a following of a unique side. 

Unlike the composition of such a team as Leicester City’s title winners, however, Ajax built their reputation on a tactical genius that fringed on poetry in the way they deconstructed sides so renowned as Real Madrid and Juventus. It wasn’t the belief that drove them through these ties so much as it was their unrecognised footballing ability masterminded by a manager who deserved his own time in the spotlight.

After working with Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and managing Bayern Munich II to the Regionalliga Bayern, ten Hag moved to the site of his playing career in the Netherlands, where he would send Go Ahead Eagles to promotion in his first season. When offered the Ajax job, he finally saw an opportunity for his tactical ability to shine. The club’s renowned academy, home to alumni like Johan Cruyff, Patrick Kluivert, and Clarence Seedorf, would be the perfect proving ground. Such a side seeking a surprise journey based on their ability to dismantle managers and teams who underestimate them requires a strong base of players who are system-built.

It’s obvious in the way that players such as Frenkie de Jong, Donny Van de Beek, and Matthijs de Ligt bonded with ten Hag’s philosophy that this is necessary for a Cinderella team. The manager’s ideal team, in this case a possession-heavy system taking influence from Guardiola and Cruyff. Without players like these three, Ajax would’ve never been able to make the run they did in the Champions League, and while the individual ball mastery and game-changing ability of players like Hakim Ziyech certainly aided the team in tense situations, it’s the solidly constructed fundamentals that provide the basis for progression and surprise.

This variation of Cinderella’s legacy is one renowned by tactical analysts and by those who desire such a team to earn their awards by winning deservedly. It’s one with an altogether different creation than those built on belief, but all the same it can deliver stupendously beautiful matches and results that inspire a generation of young footballers to play like the Ajax boys did, against the odds, and rather than encourage the belief so common to the Leicester side earn the respect of the world.

Case Study 3

Momentary Madness | Hogg, Deeney, and the Power of Love Inspiration

Sometimes, all it takes is one moment. In the land of darkness, where the shadows lie. One moment to rule them all, one moment to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them. In the land of darkness, where the shadows lie.

I could give endless examples. Sergi Roberto to set the Nou Camp alight (“And I don’t remember the last time I saw something like this!”). Dennis Bergkamp (Dennis Bergkamp…DENNIS BERGKAMP!) to seal the Netherlands’ World Cup final berth. Sergio Agüero(OOOOOOOOOOO) as time expired on the final day of the Premier League season. Even the panenka of the unnamed hero in Nike’s iconic Winner Stays On advert, encouraging the viewer to “Risk Everything”, demonstrates one moment’s remarkable capacity for change. 

But the moment that most exemplifies this trait in a Cinderella team occurred on May 12, 2013. Watford were facing the aforementioned Leicester City in a match that would see the latter team on the opposite side of a miracle. Losing the first leg of the playoff semi final 1-0, the Hornets were on the cusp of elimination as Anthony Knockaert stepped up to take a vital penalty kick. What followed is held in the annals of history. Manuel Almunia saved both the initial shot and the follow up, and Watford advanced downfield. A looping cross found the head of Jonathan Hogg, who cushioned a header to Troy Deeney, who slammed the ball into the back of the net with all the authority, conviction, and belief of the teams in the last two case studies. In nineteen seconds, Watford moved from ruin to ecstasy. Sometimes, that’s truly all it takes. One superseding moment of quality that allows a side a window of belief, or the chance to showcase their ability, might prove more valuable from a mental standpoint than a season of incredible performances. 

These moments are the ones that live longest in the memories of those who experience them. It’s those times you remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, and how you reacted. I remember the moment Román Torres took four short steps in the cold Toronto air and powered home the Seattle Sounders’ first MLS Cup trophy. I arose from my place on the couch and proceeded on a rapid parade of mad happiness around the house, through the backyard, and into an eventual rest before a trophy that my club had pursued for the better part of seven years. The importance of these Cinderella teams is not only the impact they have on a club’s history, but on the people. It’s these moments that bind people to the sport forever, that fuel the belief that is so commonly stated as the passion within the game. That impact on people is the true nature of the Cinderella Complex, in its purest form.

The journey of a Cinderella team is dependent on a confluence of variables, a perfect storm that allows for the theoretically impossible dream to momentarily appear through the mist. Occasionally, those teams grasp the dream with both hands, and seize their apparent destiny. It’s those underdogs that create our understanding of the human capacity for belief. In a sport that’s so often now driven by money and statistics, the reminder that chance and belief still have an influence upon the most pivotal of moments is vital. Our ability to believe is derived from this memory of lightning striking twice, of the stars aligning, and of players, clubs, and fans who made it happen. Risk Everything, let us know that it’s coming home, tell us about your belief that you will win. Remember where it comes from, and let that light the way to glory.