Last Sunday a friend called to tell me to turn on the biggest upset in the history of sports on TV. It was underway. A little upstart team from a backwater town was on its way to winning the Premier League soccer championship in England.
I have zero interest in soccer. But what he said got my attention. The team was founded 132 years ago and had never won anything. The team was made up of nobodies. The budget for the entire team wouldn’t pay even half the salary of one member of the team they were facing, Manchester United. And anyone who had bet $100 on this team—Leicester City—winning at the beginning of the season would win $5 million.
I turned on the game. The ball was being kicked up and down the field in front of 50,000 fans. The announcer spoke in his cockney accent.
“Even the coach of Manchester United,” he said, “is paying his respects to Leicester City. He had hoped the game could be postponed a week or two.” Meaning, he knew Manchester United was going to win, but the enthusiasm of the fans was so wonderful he just wished they could have it for a little longer.
The score was Manchester 1 and Leicester City 0 when I tuned in. The game was at Manchester. But nearly all the fans were for Leicester. They were naked from the waist up in their little yellow hats. One potbellied guy had the letters FO painted on his chest as he jumped up and down. The guy next to him sported XES on his. It’s the Leicester City Foxes.
You know there have been times that people have been killed, trampled or beaten up at these types of matches.
Anyway, it was easy to see why Manchester was beating Leicester. The Manchester guys were bigger and smarter, and positioned themselves perfectly to get or send off the ball. Worth every bit of the millions they were paid.
But, you know, trying to kick a ball around without your hands is never easy, especially when the time comes to charge the net. That’s when I saw the strength of Leicester. They were little thieves. Suddenly, they had the ball and were slashing down the other way toward Manchester’s goal for the shot. They’d miss. Then Manchester, with their patient play, would come up the field again.
Then there was another steal, and then, WHAM. A goal for Leicester. The players and fans screamed and jumped up and down with joy. Now it was 1 to 1.
I continued to watch it for a while. It was still the middle of the first half. (They play 45 minutes without turning the clock off except for injuries, then play another 45 minutes, and that is that.)
So here was the pattern. Skilled, highly paid experts take control of the ball for long periods of time. Then the little guys steal it. The Manchester goalie was back on his heels the whole time I was watching. The Manchester coach was wrong. This was not some team about to run out of lucky breaks. This was a team that was going to win. And wasn’t that going to be something.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not much of a fan of watching soccer. And so, seeing that Leicester City was for real, after a while I turned it off. But what a game.
The next day, I learned more about Leicester City and about soccer. There are hundreds of teams in England playing one another. There’s a series of leagues. The top league is called the Premier League and there are 20 teams in it. The winner is champion.
The second best league is just below the Premier League. It’s also got 20 teams. But every year when the season ends, the two teams at the bottom of the Premier League get moved down to the league below, and the top two teams in the league below move up to play in the Premier League. The leagues go down and down like a chain. Every year, a few teams get switched up or down. It’s like climbing a ladder, worst at the bottom, best at the top.
Last year, Leicester City got moved up to the bottom of the Premier League. It was expected they’d stay at the bottom getting their butts whipped for a few years and maybe creep up. Or back down.
That’s not what happened. Leicester City started off winning and it never stopped. Everyone thought they were lucky breaks. It could not last. Soon they’d fade away. But it was the others that faded away as the season proceeded. Basically, if they beat Manchester on Sunday, they clinched. But even if they didn’t there were still a few games to play where they could clinch.
Here’s more information about this team. Their coach, Claudie Ranieri, is nearly 70 and bounced around Europe in the bottom leagues for 40 years. He’s never won anything.
The goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel is the son of the now retired but legendary goalkeeper for Manchester United, supposedly learning his trade with a down-league team. (He’s been stunning.)
One player, veteran Jamie Vardy, was playing in the fifth division as recently as 2012, but this year set a Premier League record by scoring in 11 straight games.
And a French Algerian midfield named Riyad Mahrez who got hired for a few Euros last year was just voted Premier League’s Player of the Year.
In other words, it’s a team effort.
It does put me in mind of another stunning out-of-nowhere accomplishment recently. New York Mets journeyman second baseman, Daniel Murphy, a lifetime .290 hitter, last year hit a home run in five straight games to help the Mets win the National League playoffs. In the World Series, though, he struck out over and over, looking very baffled as the Mets lost. Where had the magic gone? Well, he was 30 years old, and in the end the Mets traded him to Washington, where, as of today, he is the leading hitter in the National League, batting .406. (Ha.)
In writing about Leicester’s accomplishment winning it all—one London bookmaker has had to pay out $6.8 million—The New York Times wrote a small adjacent story about another tiny soccer team seeking membership in FIFA. It is Gibraltar. Gibraltar is a British territory. About 30,000 people live there. Their national soccer team wants to join up. Of course, they’d start at the bottom if accepted. But Spain has so far held things up. Spain still claims Gibraltar. Well, maybe this year.
I love it when underdogs win. It is indeed wonderful to watch individual sports figures with tremendous talent—LeBron James or Stephen Curry or, in the old days, Tiger Woods. But I root for the underdogs, those with limited skills courageously playing over their heads.
A friend of mine, Aaron Daniels of Bridgehampton, told me that one day years ago when he was an advertising man in New York, he and his buddies talked about going to the Mexico City Olympics. Then they got an idea. At every Olympic Games, the host country gets to choose some local sport to be played. That year, Mexico was offering gold, silver and bronze to any team that could beat their team at this weird local paddleball game. Daniels and his buddies told the U.S. Olympic Committee that they played this game (which they did not), and so at the Opening Day ceremony in Mexico City, there they were, in uniform, waving to the crowd behind the banners and flags of the United States as they walked around the track.
The first game they played, they lost. Didn’t even score a point. Oh well. Now that would have been something.