Imagine if a Triple-A minor league baseball team moved up to the Major Leagues and then, a year later, won the World Series. Today, that sports-movie fantasy scenario became a reality in the soccer world when Leicester City F.C. clinched the English Premier League trophy, the highest honor in the most popular soccer league in the world.
Title rivals Tottenham Hotspur tied with Chelsea F.C. 2-2 today, giving Leicester City an insurmountable lead at the top of the league and turning them into the most unlikely champions in recent sports history.
Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) began the season with 5000-to-1 odds of winning the league—longer odds than the U.S. men’s hockey team at the 1980 Olympics (1000-to-1) or the St. Louis Rams’ odds of winning Super Bowl XXXIV (300-to-1).
But despite starting the season as enormous underdogs, the Foxes got off to a strong start that never tailed off, ignoring predictions that more established powerhouses would eventually overtake them. They’ve been perched at or near the top of the Premier League table throughout the season, consistently winning while traditional English soccer powers like Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United faltered.
Team leaders Riyad Mahrez (who was named Player of the Year), Jamie Vardy, and N’Golo Kante, all relative unknowns at the start of the season, went on to set records and rise to stardom as the team solidified its position at the top of the league.
The players were watching the match together on TV today, and when the final whistle sounded, the celebrations began:
Amazingly, Leicester City was not even in the top level of English soccer before last season. Professional soccer in Europe operates on a tiered league system, in which lower-league teams are rewarded for success by being promoted to higher divisions, and teams that finish last are punished with relegation to lower divisions. A similar analogy would be a minor league baseball team being promoted to the MLB for winning their league championship, or an NBA team being sent to the D-League for finishing in last place.
Leicester City was in the third division of English soccer until 2009, and only gained promotion to the top-level Premier League in 2014: The last time they played at the top level before that was over a decade ago, only adding to the historic nature of this run. And in the middle of last season, they were dead last in the standings and seemed destined to be relegated back to the lower leagues.
At the same point of the 2016 season, Leicester were no. 1 in the table and on the march toward a historic Premier League championship.
Leicester City’s victory is even more impressive considering the usual balance of power in English soccer: In the last 20 years, only four teams have won the Premier League title -- all of them from either London or Manchester with budgets and fan bases much larger than (relatively) tiny Leicester’s.
Leicester City’s inspirational manager Claudio Ranieri, a favorite and burgeoning folk hero for the club’s devoted fan base, wrote in The Player’s Tribune last month to describe the team’s spirit and dedication: "This is a small club that is showing the world what can be achieved through spirit and determination. Twenty-six players. Twenty-six different brains. But one heart."
Fans took to Twitter to react to the improbable win, with British singer Adele called it an inspiration and the "best (expletive) story ever."
Some more reactions from famous faces on social media:
Northern Ireland only 500/1 to win Euro 2016... If Leicester can do it.... pic.twitter.com/IQN3C72Vtt— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) May 2, 2016
No superstars.— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) May 2, 2016
No fancy stadium.
Just passion, hunger, desire & determination.#Leicester
How proud is this Dad right now? Like Father like Son...— Jake Humphrey (@mrjakehumphrey) May 2, 2016
Congratulations Leicester... pic.twitter.com/L44gLmL9ds
Chris de Burgh
Many congratulations to Leicester. An extraordinary, thoroughly deserved, Premier League title.— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) May 2, 2016
Massive congratulations to @LCFC This story has renewed faith in football,in what can be achieved for the so called 'small clubs'.— James Corden (@JKCorden) May 2, 2016
A video posted to Twitter shows the reaction in Leicester following the win: