Commentary: Across The Globe, Another Underdog Hopes To 'Take The Crown'

Apr 18, 2016

Fans have been waiting a long time to see Leicester City Football Club crowned champion of the English Premier League.
Credit Leicester City Football Club

Yes, the Royals are back, flashing the magic that made them World Series champs, Sporting KC’s cruising along at the top of the standings, and fans across Kansas City are feeling blue—in that good way that we’re almost used to by now.

Which is why I want to talk about Lester.

Who’s Lester? Exactly. But if you don’t know, then you’re missing the greatest underdog story in the history of sports.

Actually, that’s Leicester, L-E-I-C-E-S-T-E-R, a town in central England. And Leicester City Football Club is the current leader of the English Premier League, which for years has been dominated by a few powerhouse teams with names you probably do know, like Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea.

But Leicester City—a small-market team in the middle of the map whose uniforms, incidentally, are royal blue, with the gold crown of their sponsor, King Power—has never won the EPL in the club’s 132-year history. They haven’t even come in second since 1929. Two years ago, thanks to English soccer’s process of “relegation,” in which the worst teams get demoted to the second tier, Leicester wasn’t even in the league.

Now they’re comfortably on top, with only a few matches left to play. And there’s no postseason, so first place equals championship. It’s all akin to a minor-league baseball team finding itself up two games in the Major League World Series. As British-American journalist Roger Bennett told NPR’s Weekend Edition, “This is a miracle. It’s like watching the Red Sea splitting. It’s like seeing water turned into wine.”

That’s only slight hyperbole. The London booking house William Hill set the odds of a Leicester championship at 5,000-1, the same payoff it’s offering to those willing to wager that Elvis is still alive or that the Loch Ness monster is real.

And, indeed, there is a supernatural angle. The remains of Richard III, lost for more than five centuries, were discovered beneath a parking lot and, just over a year ago, grandly reburied, trumpets blaring, at Leicester Cathedral, a mile from the team’s home stadium. At the time, the club was in dead last, destined for relegation. But since the king was given proper rest, Leicester City has won two thirds of its games—talk about some royal magic.

And they’ve done it with a Bad News Bears-like band of castoffs. Six years ago, striker Jamie Vardy was working in a factory and making 43 bucks a week playing part-time in football’s minor-minor leagues. He now leads the EPL in scoring. And he’s surrounded by teammates with similar stories.

The career of Coach Claudio Ranieri, too, was on its last legs when Leicester hired him before the season, and the British sports pages had a good laugh.

Turns out the coach was in on the joke, promising his team a pizza party for each shutout and letting them do anything they want off the field, even if that’s carousing in Copenhagen dressed up as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Seriously.

On the field, Leicester City ranks last in the stats like Time-of-Possession and Total Passes that are the traditional indicators of EPL success. Instead, they counterattack relentlessly and beat their opponents by out-hustling them. And now they’re the heavy favorites to hold off second-place Tottenham Hotspur, who, alas, get no points for having the league’s best name.

If only because this all sounds familiar, KC fans should be cheering as loudly as any for King Richard’s hometown team to take the crown.

There’s a reason why our Royals’ run to glory was so much sweeter after thirty years of woe—and why I’m glad that all the fancy computer projections still rank them near the bottom.

Because from Rocky to Rudy, the “underdog triumphant” is the greatest narrative in sports, the very embodiment of that clichéd but critical conviction that “anything is possible.” And perhaps our only chance to see magic and miracles come to life.

Victor Wishna is a regular commentator on KCUR's Up To Date.