It’s hard out here for Minnesota sports fans. The Vikings fluffed their lines. Again. The Twins are bottom of the AL Central. Again. The Wild failed to cross the line. Again. The Timberwolves are a team full of promise but no playoffs. Again. It’s enough to make you swear off sports for a while. Give up on their transformative, transcendent power. But don’t touch that dial. Something is happening in the world of sports right now that is so unexpected, so miraculous, that it might just warm a frozen Minnesota heart. It might just make you believe again. In fairy tales. In rainbows and unicorns.
Leicester City will win the Premier League.
Most of you have no idea what this means. That’s OK. I’m as surprised to be writing this as you are to be reading it. As a criminologist, I usually only comment when bad things happen. Really bad things. Things like mass shootings. Gang violence. Acts of terrorism. Furthermore, I’m an Arsenal supporter, so technically this is an act of treason.
I should probably explain this is a story about soccer. But I know Americans don’t really care for soccer so instead I’ll just call it a David and Goliath story. Rocky, with cleats. “The Miracle on Ice” meets the 1991 Minnesota Twins. It’s also a story about a little place called Leicester.
It’s pronounced ‘Lester’
Leicester is a city about the size of St. Paul (population 350,000) that lies 100 miles north of London, in the exact center of England. It’s pronounced “Lester,” not “lie-ses-ter” or “lie-kes-ter,” as my Minnesotan wife said. I was born there. And raised there. My family still lives there. And until this week it was famous for one thing: the discovery of a medieval king underneath a parking lot. Come Sunday, however, Leicester will be famous for one more thing: the greatest sporting achievement ever.
Leicester’s soccer team is 132 years old and its greatest success to date is finishing second place in the top division, in 1929. In the domestic cup, Leicester City hold the record for the most defeats in the final without having won the competition. As recently as 2009, the team were in the third tier of English football.
Leicester started this year in the top tier but as 5,000-1 outsiders for the title, having narrowly escaped relegation last season (literally demotion to another league for being so bad). In preseason, the manager who saved them from relegation was forced to resign after his son, a player, was caught racially abusing a Thai brothel worker. Career suicide when your club is owned by the Bangkok-based King Power International.
Expectations sank lower when the club unveiled its new manager, Claudio Ranieri, 68, a man who had just been sacked because his Greece national team had lost at home to the Faroe Islands. That’s the soccer equivalent of missing a 27-yard field goal in dying seconds of a playoff game. Sorry, Vikings fans.
Theatre of Dreams
So, what happened next? Ranieri set the team a modest target of 40 points over 38 games, just enough to keep them afloat another year. Leicester unexpectedly hit that target after only 20 games. In doing so, one player — who only four years ago was playing nonleague football and taking extra shifts in a factory to make ends meet — became the first to score in 11 consecutive Premier League matches. The critics were dumbfounded. To celebrate, Ranieri threw a pizza party. For professional athletes.
In a league where big clubs trade marquee players like stocks and foreign investors routinely buy success — it’s fantasy football for billionaires — what happened next was ripped straight out of Hollywood. Leicester’s average Joes continued to defy the odds — and the math (Leicester’s squad cost about 10 times less than their peers to assemble) — winning game after game after game after game by playing with “one heart” and refusing to quit while ahead or behind.
Which brings us to Sunday. Leicester will travel to Manchester United, needing just one more victory to clinch a most unlikely championship. It’s the perfect setup. With 20 league titles, Manchester United are the most successful club in English history. They are also the “most valuable football brand.” The ship that launched the faces of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. The monolith that plays in “The Theatre of Dreams.” Only this time it is Leicester, not United, proving dreams can come true.
So there you have it Minnesota, a buoy of optimism in a sea of bad news. For those of you still not sold on the merits of soccer or of building an MLS franchise in St. Paul, please watch on Sunday. Last year, Leicester beat Manchester United 5-3 (or 35-15 if you subscribe to sports that award 7 points for every goal scored), hardly “low scoring,” the typical complaint of soccer skeptics.
But more important, watch Leicester, in Ranieri’s words, “fight for each other on the pitch.” Watch them play, not for fame and fortune (although that will come), but for the love of their new manager, and the beautiful game. And watch a fan base drawn from one of the most ethnically diverse cities in England, united as one. Fans who can literally cause an earthquake with their goal celebrations.
Minnesota’s failing sports franchises could learn a thing or two from the Leicester story. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 132 years to sink in. At the very least, Leicester give us a reason to be happy when happiness can seem so far away.
James Densley, who holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, is an assistant professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. He is also a huge sports fan.
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