If you are a fan of sports at all and you aren't putting some energy into paying attention to the English Premier League this year (for the uninitiated, I'm talking about the sport we call soccer), you are missing one of the great sports stories of all time in Leicester City and their run at the Premier League title.
At the beginning of April last year, Leicester sat last in the Premier League on 19 points with nine games to play. The bottom three teams get relegated; Leicester were seven points behind the 17th-place team. Over those last nine matches, Leicester won seven and drew one, a remarkable run, and finished the season in 14th place.
A little more than a year later, they sit atop the Premier League table. They have a seven-point lead over my beloved Tottenham Hotspur. Assuming Tottenham are perfect the rest of the way, Leicester need to take nine points from their remaining five games to win the league.
Is it possible for a team, rather than the players on it, to take performance enhancing drugs?
This is a Cinderella story like nothing anyone has ever seen. No analogy I've been able to come up with does it justice. Some cupcake 16-seed winning the NCAA tournament? That's not even close to an adequate comparison. Even the best teams in the NCAA, teams comprised entirely of future pros, are still teams of amateurs in their teens and early 20s. No matter how good a top team is, it's still incredibly green and unformed. The top teams in the Premier League are comprised of seasoned professionals, some of the best players in the world.
Furthermore, to win the NCAA, that storied cupcake 16-seed Cinderella only needs six wins in a row. Whereas I would argue that league soccer is the best, fairest competition in sports. Every team in the league plays every other team home and away, and the winner is the team with the best overall record over the course of the entire season. No one gets an easy path against weaker teams. There's no series of playoffs. There's no way a lucky streak can bring, for example, a sub .500 team into March Madness, as can happen in NCAA basketball. There's no way a terrible division can allow an 8-8 team into the playoffs, as can happen in the NFL. In league soccer, a six- or eight-game hot streak is lovely, but it won't make up for poor play for the rest of the season. The league rewards consistent form from the start of the season until the end--a season that lasts from mid-August until mid-May, by the way. Over a 38-match, nine-month season, there's no choice but to navigate inevitabilties like accumulated fatigue and injuries.
Leicester City were given odds of 5000-to-1 to win the Premier League. By contrast, the Philadelphia 76ers were 250-to-1 against winning the NBA Championship in 2015-16. Read that again. The Philadelphia 76ers, a team that literally sometimes plays a cardboard cutout of ex-US Men's National Team member Mike Burns1 as its fifth player and has gone 25-631 over the past eight seasons, were considered twenty times more likely to win their championship than Leicester City was.
The closest analogy I can come up with to what Leicester are on the brink of accomplishing is this: Imagine an NBA where, instead of us having to put up with shitty teams in the NBA East like the Knicks and the 76ers embarrassing themselves and professional sports and all of America every year, each year the worst three teams get sent down to play in the D-League, and the top three teams from the D-League get to take a shot at the NBA. I have no idea what cities are in the D-League and neither does anyone else, so let's pretend that at the end of the 2013-2014 season, the Knicks, the Nets and the 76ers all got sent down to the D-League (as they should have been) and the, let's say, Des Moines Flamethrowers, the Huntsville (Alabama) Stilettos and the Boise Waterboarders all got to come play against Golden State and San Antonio and the rest. Let us further posit that the NBA had done away with the salary cap and just let the market dictate who played where, which would mean that top teams would regularly raid lesser teams for quality personnel, creating a self-perpetuating system in which the top teams make the most money so they have the most money to spend on the top players who then go play for the top teams.
(Quick aside: Have you ever found it interesting that in America, where, notwithstanding Bernie Sanders' presidential run, the word socialist is pretty much a slur, we choose to enforce salary caps in most of our professional sports in order to maintain "a level playing field?")
Now imagine that Boise, featuring players no one else even dreamed of wanting, had a 3-0 series lead and a 15-point lead at halftime in game four of the NBA finals. Imagine the bricks you would be shitting.
To call this story "unlikely" doesn't do it justice. If it weren't actually happening, it would sound like a story that had been rejected by Hollywood as too maudlin.
That's what Leicester are on the brink of accomplishing.
Speaking of Hollywood: Leicester City's biggest star is their forward, Jamie Vardy. Just four years ago, he was plying his trade for non-League Fleetwood Town. Now, he is the second-top scorer in the Prem, currently just one goal behind Harry Kane. The conversation piece of, "If they made a movie about your life, who would play you?" is in his case not academic: right now the rumored names include Ryan Gosling, Matt Damon, and Leonardo DiCaprio. (All of whom, you'll note, are North American. But maybe that isn't as outrageous as it sounds. Currently topping the list to play me in the movie version of my life are two Brits, Sir Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba.)
And if I were Hollywood, why stop there? A rags-to-riches biopic about handsome, hardworking Jamie Vardy is pretty obvious. Why not a movie about the unlikely triumph of the team as a whole? We'll frame it within a rom-com and give it a name that's a trying-to-be-clever pun on some football term. Off the Bar or something like that. I'd cast Rosario Dawson as a plucky, slightly scattered and strangely nationalistic American graduate student who initially abhors what she derisively calls "soccer," declaring early in the movie that "properly speaking, football is a game played by armored gladiators carrying the ball with their hands." But she discovers an unlikely love for the game via her equally unlikely relationship with a diehard Leicester City fan, a charming, hangdog pub owner played by Colin Firth. I see dollar signs, Hollywood, and I know you do too. Call me.
But I digress.
As of last weekend, Leicester officially qualified for next year's Champions League, which means that next fall, several teams from the most rarefied stratum of world football--teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and AC Milan--will come to tiny Leicester to do battle in the King Power Stadium.
At this point, only a collapse more complete than Jordan Spieth's will keep them from winning the title. As I said above, assuming Tottenham are perfect from here, which includes a game at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, Leicester need to take nine points from their remaining five games. That's three wins or two wins and three draws. Admittedly, they have a tricky schedule the rest of the way. They play against West Ham this weekend, then have a relatively easy game against Swansea at home, a somewhat trickier match against Everton, before finally finishing the season with tough matches away at ManU and Chelsea. But the assumption of perfection from Spurs is, shall we say, a difficult one. And Leicester's path got a little easier when West Ham, holding an outside chance at qualifying for the Champion's League, had a bad call in their game against Crystal Palace two weekends ago lead to a player being sent off, after which Palace equalized, and then last weekend against Arsenal saw blown offside calls incorrectly negate a goal for them and allow one for Arsenal. Both matches ended in draws. Then West Ham lost at home to a mediocre Manchester United side in a quarterfinal F.A. Cup replay yesterday. They're looking a bit demoralized.
I am a die-hard Tottenham fan. This is Spurs' best chance of winning the league since 1961, and I'm nevertheless excited at the prospect of Leicester winning the league. You should be too. You should watch. It's gonna be great.
1 Mike Burns played defense for the USMNT during the 1998 World Cup. The USMNT played Iran in the first game of the U.S.'s ignominious 32nd-out-of-32-teams performance. On one Iranian corner, Burns had the defensive role of covering one of the posts. Iran scored between him and the post, leading some clever commentators to point out that on that play, actual flesh-and-blood Mike Burns would have been outperformed by a cardboard cutout of Mike Burns.