Legendary Leicester Season is Why We Love Sports

An editorial by Justin Cirillo

There’s a line in one of my favorite movies, “Moneyball”, which captures the joy and drama of sports. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s portrayed by Brad Pitt, after watching his underdog team win 20 consecutive games says “it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball”.

 

If you know me personally, or have clicked around enough on this site, you know by now that I work at NBC Sports and play a very small part in their coverage of the Premier League. I transcribe interviews, I watch games, I type out key events as they happen, I organize some videos. It’s a blast, especially when the games are exciting and your co-workers are just as passionate as I am (both instances are true). I try my best to not let my support of Liverpool, or let my dislike of the Manchesters, Arsenal and Chelsea get in the way of doing my job.

But nothing, not even Liverpool’s near triumph in the Premier League two years ago, has made my job as fun and thrilling as Leicester City has. After witnessing their improbable, 5000-1 odds journey of winning the Premier League, I’d say that it’s pretty damn difficult to not be romantic about soccer. If moments like Landon Donovan’s goal to save America in the 2010 World Cup, or Abby Wambach’s header in the Women’s World Cup to do the same thing a year later, or Carli Lloyd’s hat-trick in the World Cup Final last July hasn’t done it for you, then Leicester City should.

The Premier League is, both literally and figuratively, a foreign concept here in the states. The sport is not American, there’s no playoffs, teams come from places that we might think are places in fairy tales, accents are strange. But if there’s one thing we can understand, it is the feeling of watching a hopeless sports team suddenly go on a magical run. We cherish the 1980 men’s hockey team. We cherish every Cinderella every March in the NCAA Tournament. We cherish moments like when we watch the Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl. We do it when we rally behind a team like the Kansas City Royals in the playoffs; recently they were laughing stocks, and now they are champions.

Leicester City is the sum of all of those underdogs. Again, there are no playoffs in their league. There’s no “sneaking into” the playoffs and suddenly getting hot at the right time. You either get points in a game, or you do not. You play everyone twice; there’s no “strength of schedule” argument. You must play your best at all times. For 38 matches.

I don’t think I seriously considered Leicester to have a chance of making anything out of their season until Christmas. Even after they had a stellar first half of the season, which saw themselves in the auspicious position of being top of the table on Christmas Day. No, surely there was going to be a sharp and cruel regression to the mean. And then they held a rich and skilled Manchester City team to a 0-0 draw a few days after Christmas. I believed this would be a good season, but not one that would end up like this.

Consider that this team last year needed an outstanding stretch run of games to simply remain in the Premier League.

Consider that their manager, Claudio Ranieri, was widely considered the wrong fit to replace the fiery Nigel Pearson. Ranieri was fired from his most recent stint as manager, which was for the Greek national team. They lost a game in European Championship qualifications to the Faroe Islands. I can hand you a map and give you ten guesses to point the location out to me, and you still couldn’t tell me where they were located. That team beat Claudio Ranieri’s side in 2014, months after the team had made it to the knockout stage of the World Cup!

Esteban Cambiasso, one of the team’s most consistent players in their 2014-15 campaign, transferred out of the club over the summer.

Their striker is Jamie Vardy, who has spent most of his career playing semi-professional football. Their main threat in midfield is Riyad Mahrez, a French-Algerian wonder that was buried at Ligue 2 club Le Havre in France before he arrived at Leicester in 2014. At the time, Leicester were playing in the Football Championship, England’s second tier of professional soccer. N’Golo Kanté, whose relentless energy and tackling ability in midfield has been one of the keys to their championship run, was also playing in France’s second division two years ago.

Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel’s father knows all about winning championships; father Peter won the Premier League five times. Defender Robert Huth had a small role in Chelsea’s back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006. They are the exceptions to the rule: most of this team could never dream of being champions.

In soccer, particularly in the Premier League, money rules all.Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in “Soccernomics” that player wages and league position correspond with each other over 90% of the time. The more you pay players (like Manchester United and Chelsea tend to do) the more likely you are to win games. The less you spend, the more likely you are to find yourself at the bottom of the table. This year’s champions wages are a quarter of what Chelsea payed their players en route to the 2014-15 title, according to the New York Times. Consider Leicester a part of that ten percent that redefines the very laws of our natural universe.

Their championship run became real in February, when they defeated ultra-rich clubs Liverpool and Manchester City by a combined score of 5-1 in the span of a week. When the Foxes went up 3-0 in the second half at City, BT Sport commentator Peter Drury famously said “They’re not just beating the richest team in the land; they’re ripping them up on their own patch“.

Their style of play is unconventional for a championship team. Leicester excels at playing balls over the top to Vardy, who uses his lightning-like pace to tear through defenses. When they are in possession, Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater, and Shinji Okazaki make composed decisions with the ball, never one too risky to leave them open to counterattack. The defense, led by Huth and his partners Wes Morgan, Danny Simpson, and Jeff Schlupp. They have been nearly flawless in front of Schmeichel, who has come up with a big save nearly every time he has been asked to.

These are players that no team wanted. Most of them toiled in teams that drift in and out of, or sit towards the bottom of the Premier League. We all sat in amazement when the Oakland A’s dominated the regular season of baseball in 2002. Leicester’s story is what Moneyball would have been if Oakland had won the last game of the season.

On multiple occasions, Claudio Ranieri has been moved to tears when his team have pulled out a victory or a point in a big match. After finishing as runner-up multiple times in his career, including being the unfortunate team to finish second behind the “Invincible” Arsenal team in 2003-04, Ranieri is finally champion of a top-tier league.

This interview, which was conducted before this past weekend’s set of games, gives you a small idea of what their manager is like.

As someone who has listened to, and in the course of my job, documented many of his interviews and key moments over the course of this season, he has remained incredibly humble. Other managers speak openly about their tactics, or why their plan was the right plan, or about their reputation; not Ranieri. Always the focus was on the team, the work rate, and the effort. And after nearly 30 years of waiting to celebrate, he finally can.

Thank you, Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City Football Club, for making the world romantic about soccer.

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