If you are an American sports fan, there is a good chance that you are not watching, and may not even be aware of what is going on in the English Premier League, but you should be, even if you don’t particularly like soccer. What is happening right now across the pond now may very well be the most improbable, most incredible, and most exciting team sports story of my lifetime, and perhaps ever. And with three games left, you still have time to witness some of it.
To understand exactly what is happening, a short explanation of the English football (that is, soccer) system is in order. Like all European systems, English professional and semi-professional football is divided into tiers, with the top teams in each tier being promoted to the higher tier, and the bottom teams relegated to the lower, at the end of each season. Unlike most systems, the English top tier, the Premier League (usually abbreviated EPL, and sometimes called the Barclay’s Premier League, or BPL, in reference to its chief sponsor) is technically separate from the other tiers, though it still participates in relegation and promotion with them. The EPL consists of 20 teams, the bottom 3 of which are relegated to the second tier, the Football League Championship, or just The Championship, which in turn promotes its top 2 teams automatically and a third team that wins a playoff between the next 4 in its standings. The bottom three teams in The Championship are relegated to League 2, the bottom three in that league to League 3, and so on, until you reach the regional professional and semi-professional tiers way down at the bottom of the system.
Leicester City Foxes are a team in the mid-sized city of Leicester (pronounced “Lester,” because the English are weird), in the East Midlands near Birmingham, and about 103 miles Northwest of London. The team has had moderate success in the English top flight over its 139 year history, but has never won a championship, or even come close to doing so. In 2003, they were relegated to the 2nd tier (then called Division One), and in 2008 further relegated to the 3rd tier (confusingly called League One, because again, the English are weird). They quickly rose to The Championship (the second tier, recall) after the following season, and won that league in 2014, gaining automatic promotion to the EPL for the 2014-2015 season. And that, really, is where the amazing story begins.
By late in the 2014-2015 season, relegation after only one season appeared all but certain. After 29 of 38 matches, the Foxes had only 19 points, 1 were 7 points behind the 16th place team (the lowest position not relegated), and hadn’t won since January. By historical standards, they were relegated all but mathematically. Only no one bothered to tell Leicester this. Beginning with a win against West Ham on April 4th, 2015, the team went on an incredible run, winning 6 and drawing one in their final 8 matches, losing only to the eventual champions Chelsea. The draw with Sunderland on their final match day secured their position in the Premier League (they finished 14th), in what The Guardian called the greatest escape in the Premier League era.
If that were the end of Leicester City’s story, it would be a pretty great one, but it is only the beginning. Over the summer, Leicester was forced to fire the manager who had pulled off the miraculous run to avoid relegation, and hired in his place Claudio Ranieri, an Italian who’d been ignominiously fired from his last gig as the head of the Greek national team after losing to the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands, if you are wondering, are, according to Google, “a self-governing archipelago, part of the Kingdom of Denmark… [comprised of] 18 rocky, volcanic islands between Iceland and Norway.” With a population of 49,469, the state is not exactly a European football powerhouse, and the defeat was a huge embarrassment for the once at least very competent Greek team. Ranieri’s stock was not exactly high, and his hiring smacked of desperation.
To make things seemingly worse, to start the 2015-2016 season, Ranieri implemented seemingly incomprehensible changes. Instead of starting the team’s leading goal scorer from the previous season, Argentine striker Leonardo Ulloa, Ranieri announced that he would start Englishman Jamie Vardy at striker. Vardy, who until 2012 had been playing for a non-League team, that is, a team outside of the primary English professional tier system, was known for being one of the (if not the) fastest players in the league, and a ball of energy, but no one thought he could carry a Premier League team. Starting up front with him was an Algerian, Riyad Mahrez, who’d been sold to Leicester two seasons earlier for a nominal fee by the French second-tier team Le Havre. Their midfield and defense were mostly comprised of older players past their prime and holdovers from their time in the second tier. Pretty much everyone predicted Leicester would finish in the bottom three and be relegated. Odds-makers put Leicester’s chances of winning the Premier League at 5000 to 1.
At this point, I should tell you a bit more about English soccer. Because there are no collective bargaining agreements in England, no cap limits, and no free agents, English top flight soccer is dominated by a few very wealthy teams, with everyone else competing to either avoid relegation or get one of the top 7 spots and get to play in one of the European club tournaments. As a result, since it began in 1992, only 5 teams have won the Premier League, and one team, Manchester United, has won more than half of them (13). Each year, it is pretty much assumed that the championship will be won by either one of the two Manchester teams – United or Manchester City – or one of the two London power houses, Arsenal and Chelsea. If any team is likely to beat out one of those four, it would almost certainly be Liverpool. These are teams worth hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps even billions. Everyone else in the league is a perennial also-ran.
The 2015-2016 season was odd from the start. Chelsea, perennial powerhouse and last year’s champions, played terribly, and sat near the bottom of the table. The consensus favorites, Manchester City, jumped out of the gates with 5 straight shut-out wins, looking unstoppable, then lost the ability to play soccer well. The second strongest contender for first place (given Chelsea’s epic downfall), Arsenal, were highly inconsistent from day one. Powerhouse Manchester United lost to the small Welsh side Swansea City at home, Liverpool played terribly, and hopeful upstarts like Everton (the other Liverpool team) and Tottenham Hotspurs (yet another London team) floundered in the middle of the table. And if you looked closely, there was Leicester City, hanging out in the top 4.
And they were hanging out up there in style. Vardy, the non-league striker whom Ranieri inexplicably started over last year’s star Ulloa, was wreaking havoc among Premier League defenses, becoming the first player ever to score in 11 straight Premier League games. Alongside him, Marhez was proving himself to be one of the smoothest players in the league, just behind Vardy in goal scoring and providing spectacular assists as well. Two of their midfielders also turned out to be surprisingly good, with N’Golo Kanté providing unlimited energy on defense, and incredible speed in transitioning from defense to offense, and Danny Drinkwater playing well enough to earn a spot on the English national team.
By December, they were in first place, where they remained into the new year, but everyone, and I mean everyone, figured it was only a matter of time before Arsenal or Manchester City overtook them (Tottenham were also coming on strong). Even Ranieri was still talking about avoiding relegation. Then Leicester went on a bit of a dry streak, winning only 1 out of 5 league matches from the end of December through most of January, and the doubters seemed vindicated. But Leicester wasn’t done. The Foxes beat Stoke City 3-0 to end January, then began February with a 2-0 win over Liverpool and a 3-1 win at Manchester City, planting them firmly in first place again, and all the doubters began to wonder: could this happen?
They stayed in first throughout March and April, as the main contenders, Manchester City and Arsenal, slowly withered. It became impossible to deny that Leicester not only could win the league, but are probably going to do so. Now, only 3 matches to go, only Tottenham is mathematically capable of catching them. Leicester only needs 5 points from their final 3 matches – at Manchester United, at home against Everton, and at Chelsea – to win, regardless of what Tottenham does. This could happen. This will probably happen. Could this happen?!
If 5000 to 1 doesn’t tell you just how improbable this is, consider some possible comparisons from other sports. The 1969 Miracle Mets, who were only 8 years into their existence, and had yet to have a winning season? The 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, which somehow defeated a Soviet team that had absolutely destroyed them in each of their previous matches? The 1985 Villanova Wildcats, which beat the seemingly unstoppable Georgetown Hoyas led by future Hall-of-Famer Patrick Ewing? The 1991 worst-to-first Minnesota Twins? All highly improbable, to be sure, but nothing compared to a team that just 4 years ago was in the 3rd tier, just two years ago in the 2nd, and just a year ago in last place in the 1st; a team led by a non-league player and a French 2nd League cast off; a team managed by the man who lost to the Faroe Islands; a team that almost every expert predicted would finish in the bottom 3 and be relegated; a team that has never won a major championship in its 132 – one… hundred… thirty-two – year history; a team with a tiny payroll playing in a league that’s only won by teams that spend hundreds of millions on the best players in the world. This is unprecedented. Absolutely nothing compares.
There are three matches to go. Tottenham could catch them, if they win each of their final 3 matches and Leicester doesn’t win any of theirs – a distinct possibility for a team that is playing extremely well right now, and is led by perhaps the best scorer in English football, Harry Kane. This weekend, the Foxes will play at highly motivated Manchester United, who are fighting for a spot in the top 4, which would put them in the UEFA Champions League next year. The week after that, they will play against Everton, in their final match of the season at home in King Power stadium, where the crowd is so loud and boisterous that their goal celebrations register on nearby Richter scales. And finally, they end the season in London against Chelsea, last year’s champions, and one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. How fitting would it be if tiny Leicester were to seal the Premier League championship against the reigning champions and perennial powerhouse Chelsea?
If you are a sports fan, do yourself a favor and watch each of these matches. You will be witnessing sports history.
Front page image: “The players of Leicester City and West Ham United during a Premier League game at the Kingpower Stadium, Leicester.” Source.