For all the talk about sports being an escape from reality, the reason so many of us enjoy them is the same reason many people enjoy video games or trash television: they are just close enough to life itself that, for the time we spend indulging in them, we feel apart of something. Better yet, that something isn’t necessarily happening to us, like missing a green light or getting unexpectedly charged an exorbitant gratuity, so we can be as attached or unattached as we want.
Going a step further, sometimes sports can function as a perfect facsimile for life, really. Excessive hope leading to monumental disappointment; lowered expectations giving way to delightful surprises; and beauty presenting itself as madness, or vice versa. At various points over the last eighteen months or so, Leicester City F.C. has embodied all of these. Yet now, only one distinction matters to the team and its fans: champions of England.
Claiming the Premier League title with two games remaining due to Eden Hazard’s villainous turn against Tottenham on Monday°, Leicester completed the most unlikely championship season in major modern sports history. It isn’t hard to quantify what the Foxes have accomplished this season. It’s remarkably simple to do so, actually, as plenty of outlets already have. By now, you’ve surely heard the 5,000-1 odds that bookies are loathe to repay, to the point at which it’s already entered a lexicon of sports clichés about underdogs, so it seems banal to run back over them now.
In contrast, qualifying Leicester’s title run, especially to an American soccer fan, is a greater challenge. Because of the construction of the English football system, which includes over 140 leagues spanning across 24 tiered levels, it is difficult to find anything analogous. Imagine, for instance, your favorite AA minor league baseball team – because you have that now – winning the Eastern League, and then winning the Triple-A Baseball National Championship Game¹, and then winning the World Series a few seasons after that, led by a dude who was playing adult men’s travel baseball and working as a medical technician. Even that doesn’t take into account the lack of parity in the Barclays Premier League, which had only seen five champions since its inception in 1992 prior to this season.
So much had to break Leicester’s way to realize this dream, and all of it did. What once seemed so improbable, from November through early April or so, received aid in the forms of injuries to other teams, inconsistency, loaded European schedules outside of Premier League games and Arsenal’s general, unfortunate condition of being Arsenal². Every champion in every sport receives outside assistance because sports don’t happen in a vacuum, but the Foxes had the benefit of more strokes of luck than perhaps any other.
Two days after the impossible became possible, BBC Sport is already asking, “What next for the champions?” For one, the Champions League beckons, adding games to the club’s schedule which may inhibit the kinds of performances the fresh Foxes enjoyed against tired legs. Additionally, Leicester’s bait-and-counterattacking style isn’t the trend in England, let alone in European football. Not that trends aren’t made to be bucked, of course.
What began as a pursuit for 40 points, the accepted standard for avoiding relegation, and then turned into a fight for entry into European competition has resulted in a championship for Leicester City. After having deflected title talk for most of the season, manager Claudio Ranieri, ever the optimist, has already insisted that Leicester will not repeat next year.
He’s probably right, but then, the betting agencies thought they were probably right in slotting Leicester’s title chances this season as being less likely than Elvis turning up alive or there being extraterrestrial life. In sports, as in life, we eventually learn to expect the unexpected, from massive disappointment to daily, prosaic conventions to thrilling revelations. Even then, we aren’t prepared for the fortuitous occasions when we experience barnyard livestock taking flight before our eyes.
°Perfect that it’s a Chelsea player who brings dismay to Spurs yet again.
¹Formerly the “Bricktown Showdown,” apparently
²Like Clemsoning in college football, “Arsenaling” has become an accepted term for repeated failure to meet expectations and/or absolutely blowing it against relative minnows. But at least the Gunners return a profit!