Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Leicester City - a celebration of improbability

I don't follow English soccer much these days, but here's a shout-out to little Leicester City, who clinched their improbable campaign to win the elite English Premier League last night.
It perhaps didn't happen in the most dramatic fashion - a statistical victory as second-placed Tottenham Hotspur failed to win against Chelsea - but it was not a fluke: the team has lost just three games all season, and are several points clear with a couple of games still in hand.
A little background, though, gives an idea of the enormity of their achievement. In a soccer world dominated by mega-corporations like Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, who between them have shared out every championship for the last 20 years, Leicester has a quarter of the player payroll of these powerhouses. Manchester City spent more on one player this year (Kevin De Bruyne, £54 million) than Leicester spent on the whole of its starting line-up. Their best performance before this year was second place - in 1929. Just eight years ago, the team was playing in the lowly Third Division, and it narrowly avoided relegation from the Premier Division just last year. It filed for bankruptcy protection as recently as 2002. So, yes, improbable, I'd say!
In fact, at the beginning of the season, British bookmakers had the odds on Leicester City winning the championship this year at 5,000:1, substantially worse odds than the discovery of the Loch Ness Monster, Robert Mugabe winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Kim Kardashian being elected President, or Elvis Presley turning up alive (the things Brits bet on!) The internet is rife with stories of punters who bottled out early and took substantially lower payouts, thinking that their luck couldn't possibly hold out to the end of the season.
And why did it happen? A couple of shrewd acquisitions (Algerian Riyad Mahrez, since named PFA Player of the Year, and goal-scoring phenom Jamie Vardy); a manager, Claudio Ranieri, who has never won anything substantial in his career, and who had been fired from managing the Greek national side after their embarrassing loss to the Faroe Islands, but who has managed to mould Leicester into a cohesive giant-slaying team; and a new club owner, Thai billionaire and soccer fanatic Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who has invested heavily in the team and its stadium since his arrival in 2010.
Maybe it was Vichai's habit of having the playing field blessed by Buddhist monks before kick-off, or maybe it was just sheer dumb luck and serendipity, but it's good to know that these kinds of phenomena are still possible, and that money does not dictate everything in the modern world.

No comments: