If you’re an American who doesn’t follow international soccer or, even worse, dismisses it out of hand, you are missing what arguably could be the best sports story of your lifetime.
Think the movies — Hoosiers or Rudy … the 1969 Mets … Joe Namath’s 1970 Jets … North Carolina State over Houston … Villanova over Georgetown … the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team … Giants-Patriots – both of them … Texas Western over Kentucky …
Take them all. And then put them together and multiply them by five or 10 or … whatever. Use your age – that will work, too.
The story: the improbable 5,000-to-1 shot – Leicester City of the Barclays Premier League.
Yes. British soccer.
But, first, some background:
- The Premier League is the most popular soccer league in the world, overflowing with television and merchandising money and home to Manchester United and other “big” teams such as Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. Even those of you who don’t follow soccer have heard of ManU.
- The league operates as a single 20-team entity – no divisions like we have in all of our sports leagues here. So, if you come in last, you in fact come in 20th.
- But it’s even neater than that — the four bottom teams get relegated down to the next level of soccer in Britain. So, view it this way: In the 2015 Major League baseball season, that would have meant that the four teams with the worst records (Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, Oakland As and Atlanta Braves) would have dropped down to the triple-A minor leagues for the 2016 season, and the top four minor league teams (Fresno Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Columbus Clippers and Indianapolis Indians) would have been “promoted” to the majors.
Back to Leicester City. This is a team that has never won a top-division title in its 132-year history — they haven’t even finished second since 1929. Think of the pre-2015 Chicago Cubs bouncing up and down between the National League and the triple-A minor leagues.
With four games to go in the 38-game regular season, Leicester City – a team with a meager payroll, a coach who has never won a title and a collection of what would be considered “roll players” in U.S. sports jargon – is leading the Premier League by five points. (You get three points for a victory and one for a tie.) If the second-place Tottenham Hotspur squad sweeps its last four games, Leicester would need to win three games to retain first place. Two wins and a tie won’t do the job as the Spurs would win on greater goal difference during the season.
Consider: Two years ago Leicester City wasn’t even in the Premier League, playing in the second-tier Championship league instead. And then in 2015, Leicester City was languishing down in the Premier League’s “relegation zone” before pulling off a miraculous run in the last few games of the season to avoid going down.
All of which brings us to 2016, and Leicester City sits atop the standings with 21 victories, just three losses and 10 ties. And four games to go.
But consistent with a movie script, some last-minute excitement has been injected into the story because, in last week’s game against West Ham United, Leicester’s start striker Jamie Vardy took issue with being ejected and too strongly berated the referee.
But, first, a quick sidebar about Vardy.
Ten years ago he was playing part-time for a neighborhood team … and, after having a run-in outside a pub, was ordered by the court to wear an electronic tracking device. And this meant, you guessed it, that he had to be subbed out of some games early so he could rushed home to avoid violating his sentence. And, as recently as 2012, Vardy was working nine-hour shifts making medical splints.
But Leicester City came calling a few years back and this season Vardy has scored 20 goals, the second highest in the league.
Think Robert Redford in The Natural meets Billy Martin meets Mark Fidrych.
Well, not quite, because the league is seeking to discipline Vardy and Leicester City for last week’s outburst and the final determination of the penalty is yet to be determined. And the U.K. sports media is wondering if this event will derail the happy story line.
Only time will tell. But what we do know is this: If Leicester City pulls this off, it would be as if a minor league baseball team won the World Series two seasons after being promoted to the big leagues.
And it doesn’t get much better than that. Go Foxes!