NCAA Football

Venkataraman: Leicester who?

May 6, 2016

Like Worcestershire sauce or Gloucester, Massachusetts, the apparent birthplace of the pink lawn flamingo, the “ces” in Leicester is silent. Located in the East Midlands of England, in the ceremonial county of Leicestershire (pronounced similarly), Leicester is a city of roughly 340,000 residents. And Leicester City, the hometown football club for the city, are apparently Premier League Champions.

I’ve already written at length about Leicester City’s remarkable run, but it bears mentioning again that this team had 5000-1 odds of winning it all before the season started. Those odds are less than those of Elvis being discovered alive. I don’t think any more needs to be said about the preposterousness of a team with such long odds actually emerging with a trophy.

For those who are unfamiliar with league play in soccer/football, it bears mentioning that there are no playoffs in most leagues, the Premier League included. This adds tremendous weight to the regular season, for there is no prospect of a streaky team (I’m looking at the New York Giants as the canonical example of this) getting hot right as the playoffs start and riding a wave of good fortune and injury luck to a championship (sobs). For the Foxes of Leicester City to emerge with the Premier League title, they had to play every other squad in the EPL, at home and away (a total of 38 games) and come away with the most points at the end of the season, with three points awarded for a win, one point for a draw and zero points for a loss.

It also bears mentioning that there is absolutely no salary cap in soccer of any kind – if the owner of Manchester City wishes to sink a billion dollars into his team (he does), he can do so, buying up every other team’s stars and robbing them of talent. A stat I read somewhere on the Internet postulates that Leicester City’s total wage bill, for a squad of 20+ players, is dwarfed in value by Wayne Rooney’s five-year contract at Manchester United. Moreover, unlike sports in America, which thrive on parity and propping up crappy teams, if you do poorly in the Premier League, there is no No. 1 pick in the draft or a draft lottery to look forward to; instead, you are punished by getting kicked out of the EPL entirely and sent down to a lower league, a process called relegation that generally spells doom for a squad. Imagine the Boston Red Sox having to join the minor leagues after a poor season. Yikes.

Leicester City was relegated 10 seasons ago and only made it back to the EPL in 2014. They miraculously stayed in the EPL last season with a season-closing flurry of wins, after being consigned to the relegation bin by pundits and fans alike. A team that just faced relegation NEVER does anything of note in the following season, hence bookmakers gave the Foxes 5,000-1 odds of winning the title.

They lost basically their entire coaching staff (and the respect of their owner) after a lurid sex scandal involving the manager’s son, a number of players, prostitutes of Asian descent and a video camera (don’t ask). They hired journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri, who hasn’t managed a team of note since he was canned by Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. Their current star striker, Jamie Vardy, who began the season by breaking one of soccer’s unbreakable records (most consecutive games with a goal, held by the great Ruud van Nistelrooy), was at one point working 12-hour shifts in a factory and had to play soccer games with a tracking bracelet on his ankle (he was charged with assault in an incident that he claimed was merely him sticking up for a friend who was being bullied). And starlet Riyad Mahrez, a wizard on and off the ball, was plying his trade for Le Havre, in the second tier of French soccer, before moving for a princely sum of 350,000 pounds (the most expensive players in the world usually command transfer prices in the tens of millions of pounds).

I could write for many more hours about this incredible achievement, but it would belabor the point at hand. Leicester City winning the title is akin to a 16-seed going all the way in March Madness, a team with the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft putting together a Super Bowl run, or a minor league baseball team moving to the AL East and stomping the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox for the entirety of a 162-game season. We’ll never see anything like this again in this modern era of soccer, where the haves and have-nots are growing further apart in monetary resources. Heck, we may never see anything like this in sports again. Congratulations, Leicester City. I’ll be buying a jersey from your team store soon.

Remind Vignesh Venkataraman of the glory that was Super Bowl XLVI at viggy@stanford.edu.

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