Having won the British Premier League title for the first time in its 132-year history, Leicester City Football Club is setting its sights high.
Next season, coach Claudio Ranieri enthuses, his team looks like a good bet to finish in the top 10.
Darling, lovable Leicester.
If you want to know why the sporting world has lost its collective mind over a modest soccer club from the East Midlands, that explains it right there.
When Leicester City mathematically clinched the Premier League Monday, there was no small amount of dancing and yelping. But there were no delusions of world domination. No dreams of displacing England’s great teams atop a hierarchy seemingly dating back to the Magna Carta. No hope of luring superstar Lionel Messi to England’s new “it” club.
No, for Leicester City, the prospect of a top-10 finish is heady enough.
Which makes what happened Monday something approaching a breach in the Newtonian laws of physics.
“I don’t know the secret.”
That’s the inscrutable Mr. Raneri again, raising the question: If he doesn’t know how this happened, what are we poor sods supposed to make of it?
Perhaps just jump around and dance like a Leicesterian. Because it might be another 132 years before we see anything like this again.
This is a team whose leading scorer, Jamie Vardy, was playing for £30 a week on a semipro team while wearing a police ankle bracelet as a 20 year old. An ankle bracelet, you say? Was he part of a drug deal that went bad?
No, he was convicted of assault for beating up two lads who made fun of his friend, who has a hearing aid.
“I stuck up for him and defended him, as I would for any mate,” he has said.
This is a team whose transcendent talent, Riyad Mahrez, had previously labored for an obscure French team, passed over by bigger clubs because his build was too slight and his soccer was too, well, fun.
“Sometimes you see me on the pitch and you think I’m playing on the street,” he told The Guardian.
It is a team whose heart and soul, N’golo Kante (also plucked from obscurity in the French leagues), is so indefatigable that he has been described as having a “pack full of batteries in his shorts.”
“I tell him, ‘One day I’m going to see you cross the ball, then finish the cross with a header yourself.’ ”
So says Ranieri, the man who had never before won a title with any top-flight team he coached. In fact, he has a job at Leicester only because he was fired by Greece when he somehow managed to coach the national team to a loss against the Faroe Islands.
At last hinting at what has brought this Leicester team together, Ranieri said: “The players, the heart, the soul and how they play.”
So this is a “team greater than the sum of its parts” story, then?
This is the moment when Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” says, “There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens itself up a few seconds to show you what’s possible.”
And then James Earl Jones calls him a lunatic and chases him from the room.
For one year, the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place.
Leicester City managed to go through the entire season with virtually no one of note getting injured. It managed to do this in a year when all the top teams in British soccer – Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea – are, by their lofty stands, rubbish. And it managed to pull off a “Moneyball” revolution, finding unheralded talents from Mahrez to Kante by a data-heavy approach to the game.
Yet still, this was a team that was in last place for 141 days last season.
Two years ago, they weren’t even in the Premier League – instead toiling in the optimistically named “Championship,” which is really just the second division of English soccer. Seven years ago, they were even below that, in the English third division.
Typically, Leicester fans’ greatest joy has come when the team avoids relegation to the lower leagues – the fate of the bottom three teams at the end of each season. Even this year, when the club sat at the other end of the standings, Leicester fans’ favorite cheer has remained: “We’re staying up!”
This is not the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.
This is the Toledo Mud Hens winning the World Series. In style.
Leicester City has not shown the world what is possible. It has shown the world what was seemingly impossible.
The odds on Elvis being located alive and in good health were significantly shorter than the odds of Leicester winning the Premier League title. Seriously.
With typical English reserve and understatement, the Telegraph called it “one of the greatest sporting achievements in the history of earth.”
And so, this Saturday, on what could well be a typically dreary Midlands day, the silver Premier League champions cup will be set on a stand in the center of King Power Stadium, festooned in the blue and yellow ribbons of the Leicester City Foxes.
And, for those few seconds when the cup is raised triumphantly overhead, the universe will open up to utter the phrase “Leicester City, Premier League Champions.”
And the fans will cheer: “We’re staying up!”