To say that Leicester City is on the verge of a remarkable upset is to do a disservice to the word. They are Buster Douglas, if he had to beat Mike Tyson with one hand tied behind his back. They are Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, except if he challenged for gold instead of struggled to remain upright.
Leicester City, the Premier League leaders, is shaping up to be the most remarkable upset in sports history. Well, modern sports history, anyway. Perhaps there was a unarmed Roman slave who managed to defeat a bear in the gladiator pits or something, but this is the longest of long shots in memory. If you have ever cheered for a small-market team that was always bullied by well-heeled rivals, then Leicester is your team. They are striking a blow for minnows everywhere.
One of the things that makes Leicester so remarkable is the stage on which they are performing. The English Premier League is ruthlessly fair in the way it determines its champion, much unlike the leagues in North America, which are kind of terrible at it.
In hockey, for example, we run 30 teams through an unbalanced 82-game schedule, weed out fewer than half of them, and throw the new lot intro a crucible that lasts somewhere between four and 28 games, depending on the team. From that second tournament, we crown a champion, even though it is far more susceptible to the vagaries of luck and random chance than the longer season.
There’s no better indicator of the NHL’s playoff weirdness than that, in the 29 years during which the league has handed out the Presidents’ Trophy for the best team over the regular season, only eight of them have won the Stanley Cup. Six of them were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.
Who has the best, or most fair, playoff system, then? Those that don’t have one. England’s Premier League, for example, has the perfect laboratory conditions for fairness. Each of its 20 teams plays everyone else twice, home and away, and whoever has the most points at the end wins the league title. (It can make everything nice and tidy like that because it’s geographically small and the teams aren’t spread out.)
The English football system is also “fair” in that it is very much a meritocracy. There’s no hard salary cap or punitive tax to prevent some clubs from spending wildly and amassing top talent, and they don’t try to increase parity by awarding the rights to the best incoming players. As NHL fans today ponder the possible indignity of the Edmonton Oilers winning the draft lottery again, there’s no risk that, in England, Bournemouth is suddenly going to be gifted one of the best young players in the world. The notion, to a soccer fan, is ludicrous.
The Foxes of Leicester City were at the bottom of the Premier League at this time last year, and it was only a strong finish that kept them from being relegated to the first division. (That’s what happens in European soccer to the really bad teams: you don’t get a high draft pick, but punted from the league.)
They came into this season having spent a lot of money in transfer payments — €50-million, huge by their standards — over the summer to add talent, but even still they had a payroll of £48.2-million, 17th in the league and less than a quarter of the traditional powers. Chelsea, the defending league champions, have a payroll of £215.6-million, and four clubs are above £190-million. It is an extraordinarily top-heavy league. In the past 20 years, only four clubs have won the title, two based in Manchester (United and City) and two in London (Chelsea and Arsenal). Over that same period, only two other clubs have even managed second place, Liverpool and Newcastle United. One more non-behemoth, Leeds United, managed a third place in 2000.
The only chance a club has at making the leap from the bottom rungs of the premiership to the top is to be bought by an oligarch or a sheikh. That’s not literary licence. Chelsea and Man City became powerhouses because they are now bankrolled by billionaires. City spent €69-million in the summer on the transfer fee alone for midfielder Raheem Sterling, which is, yes, more than Leicester’s entire payroll this year.
It’s on this landscape that Leicester has romped to the top of the table. Some of it has been driven by good fortune, but the expected swoon has not come. After a 1-0 win against Newcastle on Monday — the lone goal coming off a bicycle kick from Shinji Okazaki, because of course that’s how they are scoring miracle goals now — the Foxes are five points clear of Tottenham, who would themselves be a surprise story in any other season, for first place.
Leicester has just eight games left. They were listed at 5000-to-1 to win the title before the season began. The longest shot to win the Super Bowl next season is Cleveland at 200-to-1. No other team has odds above 99-to-1.
Two weeks ago, I caught some of Leicester — a 1-0 win in which the goal came at the end of stoppage time, naturally — and the broadcasters were noting that, no matter what happens, their fans have been given a great ride.
Tosh to that, I say. They need to win, because the chance that they will ever be in this position again is close to nil.
On Monday, James Weller, a Leicester fan who put £10 on his team before the season began, was at the stadium to witness the win. His betting house — they are legal in England — offered him a £25,000 payout if he was willing to cash out. He declined the half payment, and will ride on for the full £50,000. Leicester is now the odds-on favourite to win the title for the first time this season. And in their history.
Weller said he was going to start spending his winnings on Tuesday.
Don’t get cocky now, son.