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Fighting Foxes: The Rise of Leicester City
Leicester City F.C.; could there be a more unremarkable football club? Founded all the way back in 1884, the pride of Leicester, Leicestershire, England has spent the majority of its 132 years being just kind of there. While the Foxes (as they’re called by fans) have only fallen out of the top two divisions of the English football system once, they’ve never exactly gone much further. You’ll instead find that Leicester City holds the record for the most losses in F.A. Cup finals without a victory, a bunch of lower tier championships and cups and a second place finish in 1929 as the closest they’ve ever come to being the best team in the top flight of English football. Recent history hasn’t been much kinder. In the past few years, the Foxes have become notable for three things; a tragic loss to Watford in a playoff semi-final that has to be seen to believe (seriously), a near disastrous 2014-15 campaign that was only saved due to a fantastic run during the final stretch and an offseason racist sex tape that led to the dismissal of three players and manager Nigel Pearson (whose son was one of the players involved with the tape). When the only things you’re known for in recent times is a choke job and a scandal that checks off everything on the “things you shouldn’t do” list, you know you’re not exactly Manchester United.
But as unspectacular and lame as Leicester City’s past may be it helps highlight what makes this season so unbelievably wonderful for the Foxes and their supporters. The 2015-16 campaign has been, in a word, an impossible dream for Leicester; today they stand at the top of the English Premier League table, fresh off a 3-1 victory over superpower Manchester City, a victory that felt the equivalent of a professional wrestling squash match. So what you may say; surely there’s a surprise team that always challenges for the EPL title before fading away every single year. You would be wrong, at least to this extent. Leicester City isn’t leading the EPL table; they’ve been a consistent fixture at the top since the dawn of the campaign. And now with only two losses to their name and only thirteen games remaining, the Foxes find themselves five points up on Tottenham Hotspur for first in the Premier League and thirteen points ahead of Manchester United (yes, that Manchester United) for a spot in next year’s UEFA Champions League. It’s a near certainty Leicester will make its first appearance in the biggest football tournament in the world; perhaps most importantly, there’s a great chance they’ll become only the sixth team to win the English Premier League title.
How could this happen? How could a middle of the road English football team best known for sex scandals and middle of the pack finishes become an EPL power overnight? The easy answer is that Leicester followed in the footsteps of Blackburn Rovers (the only other non superpower to win the Premier League title) and suddenly became flush with cash. Once again you’d be wrong; the Foxes payroll and transfer fund (at $70 and $55 million respectively) is $200 million less than Man City, the club that they just handled today the way James Cameron handles his actors. I don’t have the official payrolls for the rest of the Premier League teams, but I’d imagine that Leicester is similarly far behind super teams like Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and even Tottenham. Against all odds, Leicester’s money situation has been the least of the reasons they find themselves kings of the mountain. Rather, the Foxes are here for thanks to a commitment to a system, a core group of solid, hardnosed players and three special individuals; a journeyman manager, a world class diamond in the rough and the most unlikely success story since, well, Leicester City themselves!
There was a time when Claudio Ranieri was considered to be a pretty damn good skipper. A former Italian defender who played for thirteen years in his home country, Ranieri was the example of a football lifer who worked his way through the Italian system to eventually become a hot commodity. The problem for him was that things never quite came together; Ranieri’s stint with Chelsea saw him replaced with Jose Mourinho right before the club became a European power (mostly with players picked by Ranieri himself), while his two years as manager for Juventus saw him constantly questioned by media and fans before he was ultimately sacked (Juventus would then proceed to finish outside the top four for the next two years). By the time Ranieri was hired by Leicester following his sacking from the Greek National team; most pundits had given up on him. In fact, most criticized Leicester’s decision to hire Ranieri in favor of firing Nigel Pearson, and the Italian was picked to be the first manager sacked during the season.
Naturally, Ranieri has seen his career resurrected alongside Leicester’s reputation, largely because a) Ranieri has never allowed himself or his team to stray too far from the big picture (even as recently as a month ago, Ranieri stated his main goal was to avoid relegation, even though Leicester has clearly done that by now) and b) the man has allowed the club to play to its strengths. No one will ever accuse the Foxes of being a non stop attacking assault; they’re a group of dudes who play a 4-4-2 and wait for the opportune moment to attack on the counter. Ranieri has never strayed from that, and as a result we’ve seen outstanding performances from the likes of Robert Huth, Danny Simpson, Captain Wes Morgan, Marc Albrighton and the exceptionally named Danny Drinkwater. They may not be stars, but they play hard, they defend well and they know how to find those two special guys up front. Oh yeah, that point is crucial too. As good a job as Ranieri has done managing his team, even he would admit Leicester would be nothing without two world class players who have literally come out of nowhere.
An Algerian national born in France, Riyad Mahrez was a low level winger in France’s Ligue 2 before Leicester picked him up in 2014 on a three year contract. Most people thought he would be good; no one knew he had the potential to be one of the best players in the world. That’s not hyperbole either; throughout this campaign, Mahrez has emerged as a special talent, a winger of such grace and speed and the ability to create offense for both himself and his teammates. How else could you explain the fact that he leads Leicester (and the EPL) with 10 assists and is second on the club with 14 goals, the last of which was scored today against Man City after yet another beautiful run by the 24 year old. As rumors swirled that Mahrez may be a target of several clubs (both in England and across Europe) during the winter transfer window, Ranieri would describe his star winger as “priceless”. He wasn’t wrong; you can definitely make the argument that Mahrez is a top level player in any league right now and is without question the best player Leicester City has.
But even as the best, Mahrez is no match for the team’s heart and soul, a flawed 29 year old journeyman striker who, much like his club, wouldn’t be in this position right now if expectations met reality. It was just four years ago that Jamie Vardy, the pride of Sheffield, England, was a starter on Fleetwood Town, a club that at the time was so low on the English Football totem pole that they were competing with semi-pro teams in the National League System. Despite being Fleetwood’s best player and Leicester buying him for a non league record 1 million pounds (still chump change compared to most transfers), Vardy was never supposed to make it in the Premier League. He was too small (5’10), not athletic enough and, again, had spent most of his football career playing against the weakest completion in English football. What no one saw in Vardy was a work ethic, a drive, a hunger to succeed so badly that he couldn’t help but get opportunity after opportunity. Oh, and then there was that speed; that inhuman, glorious, Speed Racer esq speed.
As it turns out, Vardy’s athleticism and quickness had long been underrated, and he’s proceeded to show that every step of the way this season. In a league full of top notch scorers, it’s Vardy, not Kun Aguero, not Diego Costa, not Wayne Rooney, who leads the league in goals with a whopping 18 (in 24 appearances no less). Much like Mahrez, he’s lethal from everywhere, ready to burst into a dead on sprint from midfield to goal or to launch the ball from any distance (as he proved this week with an awesome inspiring goal against Liverpool). More so than Mahrez however is a commitment to leave every single last bit of him on the pitch for Leicester City. Make no mistake, Vardy isn’t a perfect player; his athleticism (as underrated as it is) isn’t enough to compete with Mahrez or many others in the EPL and his older age for that of a breakout star leaves very little room for him to become much more than he is. But Jamie Vardy isn’t priceless because of his talent; Jamie Vardy is priceless because of a drive even some of his peers will never know. To watch Vardy play is to watch a young man who has fought his way from the bottom to the top and is willing to give everything he has to stay there. It’s what has made him great and in turn has helped elevate Leicester City from the mid card all the way to the main event.
And so we now reach the $64,000 question; can they do it? Can Leicester City, led by two world class players, an amazing supporting cast and an underrated manager close the deal and pull off one of the greatest upsets in sports history by winning the Premier League title? The answer, much like the ending of many a sci-fi film, is uncertain. There’s still plenty of time left in the season for a team like Arsenal, Tottenham or Man City to make a run at them, and the Foxes will face a big test next weekend when they travel to Arsenal in a matchup that could swing the race for the title in any direction. And yet, every time it seemed as though Leicester would fold and fall back to the pack, they kept rising up and overcoming the next challenge in front of them. So you know what; I’m going to choose to believe. I’m going to choose to accept that in an age of money and a lack of parity, Leicester City will overcome it all on sheer guts, sheer effort and the nonstop quest for respect, redemption and glory. In some ways they already have, and the fact that the Foxes (barring a massive collapse or the apocalypse) will be in the Champions League next year is one of the most inspiring things in the history of sports. But to win the Premier League? I have seen the Boston Red Sox win a World Series (three actually), I’ve witnessed Tom Brady win four Super Bowls; hell I’ve even seen a grown man satisfy a camel (just kidding. That’s a line from Dodgeball). I’ve seen everything sports can throw. But if Leicester City F.C. wins the Premier League title, I’m ready to declare that I’ve seen the coolest thing in the history of all sports.
Now that’s a story worth taking 132 years to tell.