By MARIO PARODY, Guest Writer
Time and time again, there are teams in the sports world that defy the odds, and maybe even their own expectations, to surprise everyone and become a Cinderella team. You see it every year during March Madness with the upsets during the NCAA Basketball Tournament, with Syracuse being the team this year to make an unexpected run to the Final Four.
In the main sports here in America, you’ve seen examples like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning the Super Bowl in 2003, or maybe even the Kansas City Royals becoming World Series champions in 2015. However, now in 2016, there is only one potential upset that everyone should be talking about if they haven’t been already, and it’s not even happening in the United States.
For anyone who generally loves sports or loves a good underdog, something is going on right now in the sports world, particularly in the Barclay’s Premier League. Even if soccer is something that you don’t follow or care for, something amazing is happening in what’s considered to be the best league in the world.
There is a team named Leicester City (pronounced Lester) who are currently sitting in first place in England’s top league. Now, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve never heard of Leicester, but you have to go back to last season to see just how far the Foxes have come to currently be where nobody believed they could.
Last season was Leicester’s first time back in the Premier League in 10 years after winning the second division championship, and for the most part they were completely dreadful, as Leicester was sitting stone-dead last for most of the season and looked as though their season was over. In fact, no team had ever gotten themselves out of last place and stayed in the top flight by April (the season goes from August to May). But Leicester had other ideas as it finished the season, winning seven of their last nine games in the final weeks, and had lived to play another year of Premier League soccer.
Now, on to this season, where the momentum from last year carried on and where the Cinderella team’s run began. Leicester had appointed Claudio Ranieri to be the new coach, to the shock of many, as he’s been a manager who has worked with the likes of Chelsea, Inter Milan and Roma, but failed to accomplish much with them and was previously fired by the Greek national team four games into his job after losing to the lowly Faroe Islands.
But with Ranieri at the helm, the Foxes kept their momentum from last season going as they went on an undefeated run to start the season. Ranieri even took his players out for pizza after earning their first shutout. The team didn’t even lose until their seventh game of the season, where title contenders Arsenal clobbered Leicester 5-2. Everyone thought that this was where Leicester would finally fall back to Earth and act like the team that most considered to be relegated.
But this hasn’t been the case at all. Leicester has continued to shock analysts and fans week after week by winning games that they shouldn’t and keeping a healthy gap over their competitors. It’s actually possible that Leicester can win the title before the final game. And crazier still, they can even win it before their final three games, which include the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea. An achievement like that would be unprecedented.
Leicester has never won the top tier of English soccer. The closest it has finished was second, and that was all the way back in the 1928-29 season. There’s most likely not a single person alive right now who has seen Leicester City win that title. In the current landscape of world soccer, it’s amazing that they even have a chance.
There are so many things to look at when it comes to just how Leicester is doing this. Whether it be money, players, or even the coach, Leicester is a team that technically couldn’t (and rather shouldn’t) be in this position. But throughout this season they have been defying the odds and possibly basic logic to be where they are currently.
First, to try to compare Leicester to an American sports team doing something similar in stature is kind of difficult, but to get a basic idea of the magnitude of what’s going on, Leicester City winning the Premier League title would be like seeing the Miami Dolphins win the Super Bowl, the Cincinnati Reds becoming World Series champions, the Minnesota Timberwolves winning the NBA title or the Arizona Coyotes lifting the Stanley Cup.
And then slapping a 5,000-to-1 odd on top. It’s basically having a team that includes a couple of bright players, but having the rest filled with unknowns, and then seeing them unexpectedly win most of their games in route to a title. There are better odds of finding Elvis Presley alive than seeing Leicester come in first.
When it comes to money, Leicester is completely behind on its rivals. In the modern era, teams like Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea are typically the only ones contending for the Premier League title, mainly due to having insane amounts of cash and having some of the world’s best players on the field. Although it varies, Leicester’s roster costs roughly $76 million, or about 1/8th the cost of Manchester City’s, and its most expensive player, Leonardo Ulloa, costed Leicester only about $14 million when it bought him, and stars Jaime Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were only about $1.5 million and $550,000, respectively. Now about those latter two players…
First there’s Mahrez, a French-born Algerian international who came from French second division side Le Havre in January 2014 for a fee of just over half a million dollars. And how he’s been playing this season, many would think that his transfer fee was an absolute bargain. Mahrez has been tearing it up on the field all season and the midfielder is in the top five in goals and assists, an incredible feat for someone who looks like he just has so much fun in every game. And now Mahrez is valued in excess of $22 million, going from relative obscurity to being a rumored target for Spanish giant Barcelona.
And then there’s Vardy, one of the Premier League’s top goal scorers, who’s quite literally the definition of a late bloomer. Back in his teens, Vardy had a job at a carbon-fiber factory and played in semipro leagues, earning $50 a game until he was 25.
Now here’s where his journey begins. Vardy was playing in the eighth division of English soccer almost a decade ago and was there until 2009 before moving into the fifth division where he stayed for another three years. In 2012, he signed with Leicester City while they were in the second division, and now in the Premier League he’s breaking records and earning himself call-ups to the England national team for the first time.
Vardy ended a decade-long streak this season by scoring a goal in 11 straight games, breaking the Premier League record of 10 set by Netherlands and Manchester United legend Ruud Van Nistlerooy. That would be like a 25-year-old playing for a beer league hockey team at his local rink, then seven or eight years later scoring in 17 consecutive games and breaking Punch Broadbent’s NHL record of 16 set back in the 1921-22 season. And that’s not all. That player would also go on to have the scoring touch of Alexander Ovechkin and finish the season in the top three in goals for the year. That’s how remarkable Vardy’s record is.
On the backs of Vardy and Mahrez, Leicester City has been able to get through every game most thought it couldn’t during the season. The Foxes are ahead of the usual powerhouses of England and just a year after what seemed like an inevitable relegation, the Foxes are all but assured a spot in the world’s biggest club tournament of the Champions League (the top four teams in the Premier League at the end of the season qualify).
Coach Ranieri has had a pretty straightforward plan for success this season: have the team play compact with players tracking back when needed, and then drive forward on the counterattack through the precision of midfielder Mahrez and the ruthless finishing of forward Vardy, win balls in the midfield with Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante, and have veteran defenders Robert Huth and captain Wes Morgan absorb attacking pressure in front of keeper Kaspar Schmeichel. Possession and passing aren’t the things that would make Leicester well-known, as it’s been beating on both by opponents in most of their games this season.
Ranieri recently penned an article on The Players Tribune, where he described just how cohesive the team has been all year.
“This is a small club that is showing the world what can be achieved through spirit and determination,” Ranieri said. “26 players. 26 different brains. But one heart.”
He later talks about how fans come up to him on the street and tell him how they’re dreaming for the team to win it all. And possibly the greatest quote from Ranieri was that he said, “Okay, you dream for us. We do not dream. We simply work hard.”
No matter what happens at the end this season, Leicester City has made sports fans around the world rethink what it takes for a team to win a championship. The Foxes have proven that you don’t need money and fantastic players to accomplish something amazing. It just takes heart and will, and Leicester has caused pundits and commentators to be amazed, given non-soccer fans a chance to learn just how big this story really is and many passionate soccer fans a chance to fall in love with them and the sport even more.