Leicester City's Premier League title the most unlikely feat in sport history
Confirmation did not come on the pitch. It came via TV, social media, phone. The Leicester players gathered at Jamie Vardy's house to watch. (Christian Fuchs shared the scenes of celebration.) Maybe, in the case of Claudio Ranieri, who flew to Italy for the day to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother and was set to land back in the UK as the game was ending, it came via a kindly customs officer.
Still, it was no less sweet, and no less surreal. Tottenham's 2-2 draw at Chelsea meant Leicester were confirmed as 2015-16 Premier League champions. This was a dream, an absurd one at that, as Ranieri reminded us on a weekly basis until last month.
Athletes are taught to "visualize" success. If Ranieri had asked his players to visualize this in August, back when they were 5000-1 outsiders recovering from a scrap with relegation the previous season, rocked by two separate ugly racial incidents and coached by a man mocked as a preternatural loser, you would have questioned his sanity. Now that blurry line between fact and fiction has disappeared. Pinch yourself until you draw blood if you like; it's all real.
Leicester City have pulled off the most unlikely feat in the history of sports. There have been other outsiders or long shots, of course. It's one thing to achieve the unimaginable over a single game, a best-of-seven or even a monthlong tournament, but quite another to do it over 38 games and 10 months, playing every other team home and away. In fact, if you view it from a different vantage point, head-to-head results against the best the league has to offer, you'll find Leicester outplayed every other team bar Arsenal in the Premier League's top eight over the two meetings.
That's significant, too, because while it's undeniable that Leicester's run was facilitated by the underachievement of the league's big hitters from Liverpool to Chelsea, from Manchester United to Manchester City, this wasn't some backdoor sneak to the title. Leicester moved into first place in November and with the exception of a week in January, stayed there until the end of the season.
In an era where performance is closely linked to wage bill, Leicester took on and beat sides who paid their players three, four and five times as much. And that's the other side of the story.
This is not a team of promising kids, using their enthusiasm and talent as a bulwark against the pressure of expectations that comes from a title run. Nor is it a clutch of seasoned veterans, guys who've been there and done that and are using their experience for one final hurrah because they "know how to win."
The average age of the starting XI is a ripe old 28. And you can fit the contents of the entire squad's trophy cabinets into duffel bag: there's Shinji Okazaki's 2011 Asian Cup with Japan, Robert Huth's two Premier League titles as a Chelsea benchwarmer a decade ago and Leo Ulloa's Argentine Clausura crown in 2007 as a teenager sitting at the end of the bench. So you can take those two cliches and put them to one side.
Are Leicester a powerhouse built via sterling recruitment, whether a result of cutting edge analytics or grizzled scouting whitebeards?
Not really. It's true that N'Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez (who cost just over $10 million between them and now are worth a combined 10 times as much) were absolute steals. Credit head of recruitment Steve Walsh and the since-departed scout Ben Wigglesworth for their arrivals. But of the 10 most expensive players in club history, eight were signed in the past two years. Of those, just two (Kante and Okazaki) are starters. Guys like Gokhan Inler, Yohan Benalouane and Andrej Kramaric, cost close to $30 million. Inler started three leagues games this season; the other two have already been shipped out.
Chalking this up to genius team-building would be off the mark unless you mean team-building of the metaphysical kind. That has been undoubtedly one of the keys and in this, Ranieri has been instrumental. Whether corny (but effective) communal pizza-making nights or quietly giving extra days off, he has kept this group united, hungry and on an even keel.
Most successful teams in any sport talk of unity, sense of purpose and team spirit but with Leicester it's obvious, even if Ranieri didn't tell you at every turn that his was a "small team with a big heart." In this, he's been helped tremendously by a lack of injuries, enabling him to establish a clear hierarchy -- those on the bench accept and embrace their role -- but also by the nature of his squad. Apart from Mahrez and Kante, you can't see too many others moving on to bigger and better things.
Indeed, most of this team is bound together by failure and rejection in recent years. The two Dannys, Simpson and Drinkwater, were let go by Manchester United as youngsters. Christian Fuchs and Marc Albrighton arrived as free agents, having been released by Schalke 04 and Aston Villa respectively. Huth was a promising young player for Jurgen Klinsmann's Germany and Jose Mourinho's Chelsea many years ago before falling off the train to stardom and ending up in the lower leagues. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was told he had no future at Manchester City and dropped all the way down to fourth-tier Notts County to get a game.
Captain Wes Morgan didn't play in England's top flight until he was 30. Jamie Vardy, the club's top goalscorer, was playing semi-professionally until four years ago. A few years before that, he was playing amateur ball while wearing an ankle monitor, a condition of his probation after being found guilty of assault outside a pub. Mahrez himself was overlooked by every youth academy in France until he was 18, while just a year ago, Kante was a guy playing in front of a few thousand fans in the French second division.
The good thing with such a motley crew is that it's not too hard to sell them on the inspirational yarns about achieving the impossible that coaches love to spin. After all, they had all overcome adversity to be in a title race.
Though hugely respected over a 30-year career, Ranieri himself had experienced heartbreak and failure, finishing as runner-up with four different teams in three different countries. Maybe that's why his message resonated: It was believable. Just as, thanks to Leicester City, it's believable that a rank outsider can achieve the unthinkable.
No matter the sport and no matter the era, we were always told that if you believe, great things can happen. Now we know for sure.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.