If you are a football (soccer) fan, then you already know the story. But I wanted to share it with everyone else, whether you are a fan of some other sport or simply enjoy a good David-vs.-Goliath Little-Engine-That-Could Cinderella story.
In this day and age, it’s hard to find truly feel-good sports stories. Sports have become big business – huge-business. And it’s easy for fans to forget about things like passion, effort, and hope. But dreams still do come true.
My apologies for this being a little long, but it’s not necessarily a simple story, especially for those unfamiliar with the English Premier League. But I guarantee that it’s the best sports story involving Richard III you will ever read.
A Little Background
The English Premier League is both the richest and most-watched national soccer league in the world. Top players from around the world flock to play for the league’s 20 teams. It generates $2.5 billion in TV revenue annually and is watched weekly by up to 4.7 billion people around the world.
The Premier League season runs from August through May, with each team playing a total of 38 matches – facing each opponent twice (home and away). The team with the best record (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, and 0 for a loss) at the end of the season wins the league, which includes a sizeable financial incentive in addition to all the glory. And the top six teams earn a chance to play in the very lucrative Pan-European leagues (Champions and Europa) the following season.
The bottom three teams are relegated, forced to play in the second division the following year, which is as hard on the revenue as it is on the ego. Imagine if the worst three Major League Baseball teams were forced to play in the minor leagues the following season (with the top three minor league teams earning promotion to the first division).
The Unlikeliest Title Contenders
Founded in 1884, Leicester City is the team that currently sits in first place in the Premier League, with a seven-point lead and just five games left in the season. This is remarkable for a number of reasons:
- In the past 25 years, only two teams outside the big four (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, & Manchester United) have won the league, and Leicester City certainly wasn’t one of them (the only time they’ve finished in the Top Three was back in 1929).
- In fact, last season was Leicester City’s first in the Premier League since 2003.
- Seven years ago, Leicester City were all the way down in the third division.
- At this point last season, Leicester City were sitting in last place and it looked like they’d be relegated back down to the second division (they ended up finishing in 14th place, just six points above relegation).
- Leicester City’s best player, Argentine midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, left the team at the end of last season, and the players who were then brought in during the off-season to strengthen the squad were all relative unknowns.
- In fact, Leicester City spent less than $38.7 million signing new players for this season. The team in second place right now spent more than $70 million. And the teams who have won the last few Premier League titles have spent more than that for a single player.
- At the start of this season, the odds-makers predicted Leicester City’s chances of winning the Premier League were 5,000 to 1. In fact, most people expected them to be relegated back down to the second division at the end of this season.
Since no American sport has promotion/relegation, and there isn’t the same level of economic disparity between teams in our top sports leagues, I’ve struggled to find an analogy that speaks to the non-soccer fan. Maybe if the Toledo Mud Hens were somehow promoted to Major League Baseball and beat the Yankees in the World Series, that might be comparable. Though instead of the Toledo Mud Hens, it’s more like the Bad News Bears.
How Could This Happen?
So how did this poor little team from the English Midlands manage to lift itself from 14th place last season and find itself on the verge of winning the Premier League this season? How do you beat 5,000-1 odds?
Leicester City didn’t bring in any big-name players. Their team doesn’t have any of the big-name superstars you might recognize. No, their team is comprised of rejects from other teams – passed over for being not good enough – and players plucked from relative obscurity in other leagues and lower divisions. Most of them weren’t even considered good enough to play for their country’s national team (until now, it seems).
For example, one of Leicester City’s stars this season, English striker Jamie Vardy, was working in a factory a few years ago and only played semi-professional soccer. Another standout, French midfielder N’Golo Kanté, was playing in the third division in France. And Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez, who is favored to be named the Premier League’s Player of the Year this season, was wallowing in the French fourth division.
Leicester City did get a new coach at the start of the season: Italian Claudio Ranieri. But he’s far from a proven winner. In fact, he’s never won a top-flight title. And the journeyman has been sacked so many times that he’s managed 16 different teams in his 30-year career. When he was signed by Leicester City, his instructions were to avoid relegation – expectations that seemed daunting at the time – not to win the title.
The Ghost Of Richard III
Which leaves us with only one possible explanation, and it’s one favored by many in Leicester, the most diverse city in England outside of London. In 2012, archeologists from Leicester University dug up a parking lot in the city to unearth the remains of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”), who was killed in battle near there back in 1485.
In March 2015, the remains of King Richard III were ceremonially reburied in a local Leicester church. At that point in the season, Leicester City had 4 wins, 7 draws, and 18 losses – sitting in last place in the league. After the reburial of Richard III, however, they went on to win 7, draw 1, and lose 1 to avoid relegation that season.
And they haven’t stopped winning ever since. Of the 42 games since Richard III was laid to rest, Leicester City has enjoyed 28 wins, 10 draws, and 4 losses. And they are five games away from winning their first ever Premier League title.
It’s Not Too Late To Tune In
On Sunday morning, you can watch Leicester City as they face West Ham, a London team that currently sits in sixth place and are fighting to secure one of the coveted berths in the Pan-European leagues next season. To find the times and channels for this and the rest of Leicester City’s games, you can check Fox Soccer’s weekly online schedule.
[In the interest of full disclosure, I follow Arsenal in the Premier League. The team led the league at the Christmas break, only to do what Arsenal usually do…which is fall apart towards the very end. They currently sit in third place, with the hope of winning the title now as remote as Leicester City’s was at the start of the season. However, I do take a little comfort in knowing that Arsenal handed Leicester City two of its three losses thus far this season.]