Skip to main content

Last fall, when they lined up the odds to win England's Premiership, soon-to-be champion Leicester City was listed by most bookies at 5,000 to 1.

Among the things Irish bookmaker Paddy Power thought more likely to happen:

500 to 1 – The Loch Ness Monster is discovered.

1,000 to 1 – Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

2,000 to 1 – Kim Kardashian is elected U.S. president in 2016.

4,000 to 1 – Pope plays for the (famously Catholic-averse) Glasgow Rangers.

Not "cheers for" or "loses bet and wears shirt of," but "plays for." The Pope is 79. Plus, everyone knows his best sport is basketball.

In betting parlance, offering Leicester at those odds is what is known as "the worst decision ever made."

Another British bookie, Ladbrokes, has announced it will lose as much as $20-million on just a handful of Leicester bets. It has been slowly paying out some of the 47 Kreskins who took a flyer in the preseason and have since lost their nerve.

Two months ago, one of them, John Pryke, told Ladbrokes' website, "I just feel like our luck is running out."

Pryke stood to make $185,000 from a $37 bet. After Leicester drew with West Brom in early March, Pryke phoned Ladbrokes to ask what they'd offer to get him off the board. He agreed to a price of £29,000 ($53,000).

The tabloids set upon Pryke, one of the few punters who'd been identified by name. They pictured him standing in his house astride a Leicester banner (Pryke is a long-time supporter) looking quite pleased with himself. It was a lot of money. Pryke planned a home renovation. It seemed like a happy ending.

I imagine it doesn't this morning. Not to Pryke. This morning, it feels like he piled $130,000 on his barbecue and hit the ignition.

In all likelihood, Leicester will win the Premiership on Sunday. There are a number of combos that work for it, but essentially if it wins or Spurs lose, it's over. If it doesn't happen this weekend, then the same holds true the following game week and the one after that.

How big a deal is this? If we measure the importance of sporting events as achievement multiplied by interest divided by likelihood, it's the biggest deal of the century. If I thought there was even the remotest chance of collecting, I would wager it will still be regarded as such as we tick over into the next one.

Until this year, Leicester had never finished higher than ninth in the Premiership. Last season, only an unlikely run of form in their last few games saved it from relegation. Less than a decade ago it played in League One, the third tier of English soccer.

Leicester winning the Premier League is the Toronto Marlies winning the Stanley Cup – but weirder. This is a one-legged man winning the Olympic 100-metre dash.

Soccer, it has been generally agreed, is a money game – as in the teams with money win.

Though it is owned by a Thai billionaire, Leicester is a functional minnow. Its shirt sponsorship pays it $2-million a year – less than Wayne Rooney makes in a month.

What Leicester has had is a phenomenal run of form abetted by the sort of scouting that suggests the craft isn't entirely hocus pocus and groupthink.

Its Algerian midfielder, Riyad Mahrez, was just voted the Premier League's top player by his peers. Three years ago, he toiled in total anonymity for the second team of a French second-division side – meaning he wasn't good enough to play on a mediocre side in a bad league.

Now Mahrez is the best player on the best team in the best league in the world.

This is not quite you emerging from a Stouffville beer league to pitch Game 7 of the World Series, but it is closer to that than the other way round.

Soccer, especially as it concerns the skill positions, is largely about pedigree. If you are not considered a great player as a teenager, you won't ever be. Even if you do progress, it's unlikely you'll get the chance to play on a top team.

Those clubs don't take leaps on guys who might turn out. The money being tossed around is so huge, all of their decisions are based on what is generally agreed to be a good idea rather than what actually is a good idea.

The same giants – Barcelona, PSG, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, et al – are always named in the chase for the same few players. Moving along with the moneyed herd insulates everyone from being blamed for bad choices (i.e., "Everyone else wanted Failed Player X, too. How could we know?")

It's a suffocating philosophy, but it's worked in the modern era.

Leicester used that blind spot as a wedge to recruit marginal, unrecognized and/or older talent on the cheap. Its entire roster cost $100-million, less than Manchester United paid two years ago for notorious bust Angel Di Maria ($110-million).

Then, for no obvious reason, everyone peaked all at once. A year ago, Englishman Jamie Vardy (29) and French midfielder N'Golo Kante (25) had never played for their senior national teams. Now, they will likely be featured performers at Euro 2016. That's not supposed to happen in soccer, yet it did.

Leicester's year-long surge also put to bed another hallowed trope of high-level football: that only a few teams have the right to win.

There is a curious, widely accepted view that the Manchester Uniteds or Real Madrids are inherently different than other clubs, regardless of who plays for them. Bayern Munich could field a starting XI of 10 guys from group marketing with a Schnauzer in goal and still be expected to win.

People believe that because it's always been the case.

In soccer, a dozen huge clubs are City Hall. You can't fight them. Which is awfully boring.

And then someone did. The least likely someone of all. And it wasn't just a good scrap. It won.

In so doing, Leicester hasn't just upended the actuarial tables at betting firms. It has recalibrated for decades to come what all of us think is possible in the game of soccer. When they say something cannot be done, you will be able to reply, "Leicester."

In the larger scheme, it's a more wondrous, more lasting achievement than a title could ever be.

Follow me on Twitter: @cathalkelly

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct