A Championship (second tier to the English Premier League) football side named Leicester City – a traditional and respected one at that – suffered the biggest professional heartbreak of their lives. In the dying minutes of extra time, Watford – who were to make it to the top flight next season – defeated Leicester in the second leg to make it to the Wembley Final. It was the way they did it. Leicester, in the 96th minute of stoppage time (only four had been added), had a chance to seal everything with a penalty they had been awarded. Ex-Arsenal and Watford goalkeeper Manuel Almunia saved the penalty, saved the follow-up and Watford broke down the stretch and scored stunningly on the break to finish off Leicester with the final kick. They said football couldn’t get any crueler than that day. Thousands of Leicester fans wept for their club. They would have to wait at least another year to reach the top flight.
Leicester City, nine months after barely escaping relegation in the English Premier League in their season back (they won seven of the last nine games to pull off ‘the great escape’ under Nigel Pearson, who was then sacked because of a scandal before the new season), faced old rivals Watford on the road. A solid 1-0 victory wasn’t quite revenge for Leicester, because by now, they were in a different league. They had just jumped five points clear at the top – ahead of nearest rivals Tottenham, ahead of Arsenal and ahead of the two Manchester clubs. They were mentioned at the beginning of each sentence involving these giants. Leicester City were now leading the biggest football league in the world – three years after they couldn’t make it to that level – exactly one year after being rock-bottom in the top-flight at the same time.
Starting as absurd 5000-1 outsiders to win the title in August (the odds of spotting Elvis alive were 300-1), LCFC led at Christmas, level with Arsenal at the top. As is tradition in Arsene Wenger’s latest years, Arsenal faded away, and bitter London rivals Tottenham came forward. But it was always Leicester leading the way – they didn’t panic, they didn’t stop to rub their eyes, they didn’t choke, and they didn’t stop winning. They lost only three games all season – two of them to Arsenal – and watched, calmly, as others around them imploded.
May 2, 2016
Remember the date. Remember the name. Leicester City Football Club were crowned Champions of England after Tottenham failed to beat outgoing champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. In a way, Chelsea had scored the equalizing goal – a goal that would dethrone them officially – and they couldn’t be happier. Leicester City coach Claudio Ranieri, after all, was one of the many ex-Chelsea coaches, yet he was the one right at the beginning, before the Jose Mourinho era; he was the ‘tinkerman’ who helped Chelsea finish runners-up in 2004, convincing famous Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to take over. Ironically, the Russian owner fired Ranieri next season, and pumped in cash that would see Chelsea win two titles back-to-back and end the Arsenal-United domination at the top. Ranieri went on to manage other sides in Italy (Parma, Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan) and Spain (Valencia) and France (Monaco) before managing his first international side, Greece. He was unceremoniously sacked after Greece lost to the lowly Faroe Island in 2015, and was finally picked up by Leicester City after Pearson was sacked. And as destiny would have it, and one witty Chelsea fan pointed it out at the Bridge, “Well done, Ranieri. We knew you would win the title at Stamford Bridge one day.” And it was Chelsea who handed over the title to the 64-year-old journeyman, who had finished as a runner-up thrice with three different teams, before finally winning his first title with the most unlikely team on this planet.
This is, quite simply, the most unlikely triumph in the history of sport. And we have witnessed it. It has happened during our lifetime, and perhaps we will never see something as beautiful and magical as this victory. The world dances for Leicester City today, because they have proved that underdog stories don’t only belong to films and fantasy books anymore. It happens in real life, and it has happened now. They didn’t win a cup competition with a few lucky giant-killing performances; they won a football league that lasts for 38 games over nine hardcore months on the road. They have won week in and week out, and have suffered narrow losses and stolen narrow 1-0 victories, have resisted injury and the law of averages, and have emerged as the ultimate living manifestations of human spirit and determination and pure passion. That is not to say they lacked skill – they had the two best players of the league this year (they became the best over time), Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez and journeyman English striker Jamie Vardy.
This is the proverbial triumph of “moneyball” in a way – a win whose numbers just don’t add up. LCFC have risen from the ashes and snatched away the title when the whole world was looking. And nobody could stop them. Perhaps nobody wanted to, just so that we could see this day.
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