Leicester City Football Club May Be Close to the Upset of the Century

Fans celebrate after the final whistle at the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Leicester City played at Selhurst Park Stadium in London on March 19. Rex/AP

In late February, I made the two-hour journey north from my home in London to witness what some have started to call a miracle.

The procession of supporters wearing blue scarves and replica shirts heads through the streets of Leicester toward the King Power Stadium. King Power is a Thai company that runs duty-free shops and employs more than 7,000 people. The company, along with some business partners, also owns Leicester City Football Club, a team that hasn't come close to winning the top division title in English football since it came second in 1929. When the Thai-led consortium bought the team in 2010, it seemed rather like a vanity project for the wealthy overseas owners.

For years, Leicester struggled to fill its 32,000-seat stadium. This time three seasons ago, when the team was marooned in the second tier, just 8,585 fans turned up to see one league match. The club, which narrowly escaped demotion last year from England's top tier, the Premier League —the most-watched national football league in the world—began the new season by beating Sunderland. Nice start, but beating Sunderland isn't such a big deal. Then Leicester won the following Saturday, beating West Ham United away. The victories, along with some draws, continued. It took eight league games for the team to be beaten—by Arsenal, one of the giants of English football. Eleven games later, the team lost for only the second time—to Liverpool, which has won the European Champions League more times than any other English team.

By the time Leicester hosted Norwich City on a cold Saturday afternoon in late February, the team had lost just three matches, a remarkable run, and was on top of the English Premier League. By now, tickets to Leicester's home games had become almost as hard to get as seats at the men's final at Wimbledon. There is talk that this isn't a fluke. There is talk that Leicester City could actually win the league and shatter the de facto cartel of very rich teams that have long controlled the Premier League.

Inside the King Power, it's a blue carnival. Flags wave, fans clap and sing, and just before kickoff a tall man in the center circle blows a silver hunting horn. The Leicester players are known as the Foxes due to the area's ancient fox-hunting tradition; the horn marks the start of the chase.

Guided by veteran Italian coach Claudio Ranieri, Leicester has this season become the hunted rather than the hunter for the first time in a very long time. The world's richest football league is the team's to lose. Everyone loves an underdog, so Leicester's season has seen the club repeatedly cast as football's Rocky Balboa. No one who lives in the city , or in England, or in any part of the planet that cares about the English Premier League—and that's most of the planet—can quite believe what is happening.

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri, pictured during a pre-season friendly between Mansfield Town and Leicester City on July 25, 2015 in Mansfield, England. Jason Cairnduff/Reuters

The tactic the Foxes have used to best effect this season is to give opponents the ball, defend in depth—and then counterattack with lethal speed and precision. The game plan has helped them beat giants like current champions Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and, in a return game, Liverpool. Today, though, Norwich City—a much less starry team than some Leicester has dispatched this season—is not rising to the bait and is happily, stubbornly defending. The Foxes need to keep winning if they're to achieve the impossible. So they take the initiative and go on the offensive.

In truth, they look a bit clueless in the role of the dominant attacker. The longer the game goes without a goal, the quieter the Leicester fans become. The dream of winning the Premier League seems to be about to take a hit. A win gets you 3 points; a draw gets you but 1.

About 20 minutes from the end, two big blokes across from where I'm sitting begin thumping giant kettle drums to inspire the team. The rest of the crowd joins in by clapping. Ranieri takes off two defenders and sends on attackers. The noise grows louder.

In the very last minute of the match, a fluent attack develops, and suddenly the ball comes spearing in from the wing. Leicester hero of the season Jamie Vardy lunges and misses, but Argentine teammate Leonardo Ulloa follows up and scores.

The stadium erupts. At the final whistle, euphoric Leicester players and fans celebrate as if the team had won the World Cup. The dream is not dead. The blue carnival can continue.

And it does. The next four results: draw, win, win, win. By the end of March, Leicester City is 5 points clear at the top of the Premier League table, with seven games left. Six wins out of those seven would guarantee the team the title. Five would probably do the job. Four might sneak it. It is now likely that the next Premier League Champions will be a team without a single player whom many serious football fans would have been able to name at the start of the season.

King Power Slayers

This was never meant to happen. Not to Leicester—and not to any English football club that doesn't spend hundreds of millions of dollars on its players. Leicester, a club that has never been champion of England, began the season with many pundits expecting it to be relegated from the 20-member Premier League to the second tier of English football—a division that few people in the world care about, outside the towns whose clubs compete in it. At the start of the season, bookmakers offered odds of 5,000-1 on Leicester winning the title. Leicester is now the bookies' favorite to win the league, and the football-loving world is urging it on to victory.

The broad support the Foxes are enjoying— even managers of some other teams and fans from a few local rivals are rooting for them —comes from the fact that many of the people who love football can't stand the way modern club football is run. Many fans have come to see the game as a money-driven spectacle of the same European superteams taking turns to claim the top trophies while all the other clubs act as target practice.

In the past 20 years, just four wealthy clubs have won the Premier League title: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. In the previous 20 years, eight clubs claimed top spot at least once. (For much of that period, the top division was called the First Division.) In the 20 years before that, 11 teams claimed the honors.

There's been a similar narrowing of the elite across Europe. Financial heft underpins the domination in Spain of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Bayern Munich monopolizes the German Bundesliga. (Recent exceptions—like Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund—feel like statistical blips.) In France, where relatively modestly funded clubs like Lyon, Bordeaux and St. Étienne once prospered, the mega-rich, Qatari-backed Paris St. Germain has established a stranglehold. Since the Qatari sovereign wealth fund became the main shareholder in 2012, making Paris St. Germain one of the richest sports clubs in the world, it has won the French league every year.

The massive influx of cash from mainly foreign billionaires has all but reduced European club football to a mathematical formula. Teams with the best players and best coaches generally become champions. The richest clubs tend to hog all the best players because they can afford the high signing fees and huge salaries the top players demand. The lineup of the quarterfinals of this year's Champions League—a Pan-European club competition that generates huge revenue for the participants—features some very familiar names: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Paris St. Germain, all hugely wealthy teams.

Leicester City's striker Shinji Okazaki kicks the ball during a Premier League football match between Manchester City and Leicester City at Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England on February 6. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty

In their 2009 book about the business of football, Soccernomics , economist Stefan Szymanski and writer Simon Kuper showed how over a 10-year period there is a remarkably reliable correlation between league position and wage bill. If your wage bill is the highest in the league, nine times out of 10, the statistics predict, you will finish top. If you pay the 14th-highest total wage bill, then 90 percent of the time 14th is where you'll finish. In other words, it's not sporting character, nor a team's proud and inspiring history, nor ingenious and crafty tactics, nor any of the other things football people cherish that determines success in modern football. It's money.

And yet there's Leicester, top of the table but with a total wage bill that's 17th out of the 20 teams in the Premiership. Last season, the spending formula functioned normally: Chelsea, the team with the highest wages, at £215.6 million, finished top. The next three biggest payers—Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United—followed behind Chelsea. Leicester finished a statistically predictable 14th.

Three months ago, Leicester took on Chelsea with a team that cost barely a 10th as much in transfer fees as that of their opponents (£23 million compared with £215 million). Leicester won 2-1. Ranieri, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera , observed afterward: "In an era when money counts for everything, I think we give hope to everybody."

Exhibit A for the optimists who insist that Leicester has shown that spending big does not guarantee success is Vardy, the club's main striker. He has become a cult figure. The former factory worker's football career seemed to be over before it had started when a well-respected but not very successful Yorkshire club called Sheffield Wednesday dispensed of his services at the age of 16. He then played for three years in the reserve team of Stocksbridge Park Steels, another Yorkshire team that few people in Britain will have heard of, whose stadium seats 450 and which plays in the eighth level of the English league system. When Vardy was finally promoted to the first team, he missed his first training session because he was so nervous.

Vardy refused to give up, though, and in 2010 the slightly more elevated Halifax Town, which plays in the fifth tier, signed him for £15,000. Some Premier League players make that much in a day. Vardy then signed with Fleetwood Town and helped them into the fourth tier before joining Leicester (then in the second tier) four years ago.

He scored five goals in his first season at Leicester—an unimpressive tally that would try the faith of some managers. The following season, he did better, scoring 16 goals. Last season, he faltered again, scoring five goals in 34 matches. And then came this season. Vardy scored in the first game. Then, astonishingly, starting with a goal against Bournemouth, scored at least once in each of Leicester's next 11 league matches, breaking former Manchester United and Holland star Ruud van Nistelrooy's record for scoring in consecutive Premier League games. Stocksbridge Park Steels announced it plans to name a stand after Vardy, and some observers predict he could be one of the stars of the England national team when it competes in the European Championships in France.

Vardy began the season on £45,000 a week and has just signed a new contract worth £80,000 a week. That's a lot of money, but Manchester City's star goal-scorer, Sergio Agüero, is on £220,000 a week.

Derek Hammond, a lifetime Leicester fan and author of a series of books about football and nostalgia, says Vardy is popular not only with Leicester fans but with football fans everywhere. An almost old-fashioned figure, he's become a source of working-class and national pride.

"People see him as one of their own," says Hammond. "They see him somehow righting a wrong. In fact, the whole team is made up of players who were written off by the 'system' but are now proving they're brilliant. People identify with that. The journeyman became the everyman. They see themselves in guys like Jamie Vardy."

Jamie Vardy celebrates scoring his Leicester's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Leicester City played at St. Mary's Stadium in Southampton, England on October 17, 2015. James Marsh/BPI/Rex/AP

Vardy, who cost Leicester £1 million, is the star, but other bargain basement unknowns have also become heroes: defender and team captain Wes Morgan, who plays for Jamaica's national team, cost about the same (at 32, he's old for a Premier League player); attacking midfielder Riyad Mahrez, who plays for the Algerian national team, joined from second tier French club Le Havre for about £400,000 and is now the Premier League's fourth top scorer. ( After Leicester beat Manchester City 3-1 in February, much was made of how much better Mahrez had performed than City's Raheem Sterling, who is a similar sort of player. Sterling, who flopped that day, had cost City's United Arab Emirates and Chinese owners £49 million.) French midfielder N'Golo Kanté was a bit more expensive than most of his newly famous teammates: His fee was reported as being £5.6 million, but that's still a snip compared with the signing fees of many top stars, and he's had such an outstanding season that his asking price would likely be several multiples of that were Leicester to sell him.

Leicester's apparent destruction of the prevailing economic theory of football—that you get what you pay for—partly explains the levels of delight, tinged with smugness, of Leicester's fans and sympathizers.

Brothers Simon and Stuart Simpson have supported Leicester since boyhood. Sitting in a pub near the King Power before the Norwich game on February 27, they savored not just their team's success but also the failings of the cartel-like elite. "It's nice to be getting a bit of payback," says Simon Simpson, 45, a school catering consultant who spent 24 years in the Royal Navy. "It's a great feeling to now be up there with the big boys."

Fourteen-year-old Nathan Bates, sitting across the table from the Simpson brothers with his stepfather, is relishing the rare chance to mock what he calls the "glory hunters" at his school who shunned the Foxes in favor of teams who regularly win trophies. "There are these people who support teams like Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. They're a bit annoying. They used to tease me that Leicester will go down," he says, "but they can't say it now."

In the era of big money, none of this seems plausible. Sure, Leicester found bargains that have performed outstandingly, but it's not as if every other club in European football isn't trying to do the same. Sure, any big team can have an off day, and any small team can have a great day. But to have enough great days to prevail after the 38 games of a Premier League season feels like betting on black and winning all night. So some fans of Leicester have given up seeking rational explanations and have wondered whether the King Power hasn't been given kingly blessings.

Last March, Leicester was 20th of 20 in the league. At the same time, the city, whose population is just over 330,000, was preparing for the reburial, with full honors, of Richard III, the king traduced by William Shakespeare and whose long-lost bones had been discovered in 2012 buried under a city parking lot. On March 26, 2015, the king's remains were reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, in a service presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury. Until then, Leicester City had won only four out of 29 games. With nine matches to go, the team seemed doomed. But with the old king given his proper burial in the city, the team's fortunes changed. Leicester began to win. The team's record for the rest of the season: one loss, one draw, seven wins.

Simon Simpson jokes that Leicester's remarkable season is karmic revenge on the rest of the country for taking on face value Shakespeare's depiction of the local boy, King Richard, as a heartless murderer. "He never killed those little boys in the tower," Simpson says. "It's all lies!"

Yes, but No

So has Leicester, even if it doesn't manage to win the league this year, proved that the era of the superclubs is over? Has the not-so-smart kind of moneyball—the sort that doesn't require the bargain-hunting, stats-based acumen of baseball general manager Billy Beane but instead involves writing bigger checks than the rival teams—met its end at the hands of players who a year ago were generally considered nobodies?

I've been writing about football and culture for over 20 years, and I love the game, but I never cease to marvel at the gulf between the meanings we project onto it and the way it is played and run. So here's the unromantic reality of this wonderful story: Leicester's impressive season is neither the near-biblical miracle we like to imagine nor the catalyst of long-term change in the sport. Sorry.

Ngolo Kante of Leicester City drives the ball past Jonathan Howson of Norwich City during a Premier League match between Leicester City and Norwich City at King Power Stadium in Leicester, England on Feb 27. Richard Calver/Rex/AP

The late Italian philosopher Umberto Eco pretty much hated football, once linking it to "the absence of purpose and the vanity of all things." But in an essay called "The Frames of Comic Freedom," Eco offered a theory that helps explain what's going on with Leicester and our collective reaction to the team's success. Eco wrote about how and why the normal rules of society are overthrown during carnival time in Catholic countries. He described carnival time as "an upside-down world in which fish fly, birds swim, foxes and rabbits chase hunters." The existing social order is reversed—"bishops behave crazily and fools are crowned"—but only for a very short time. Apparent chaos is swiftly followed by the reimposition of exactly the same strict rules that existed before carnival.

Other writers have shown how carnival functions as a safety valve for the release of popular pressure for real change. The period of carnival looks subversive, but according to Eco, it is actually a mechanism for keeping things exactly as they are.

I suspect that's partly what's going on—without any design from the powers that run football—with Leicester City. "It's very important for Premier League propaganda, and for everyone who invests so much of their emotional life in the Premier League, to believe that the game is not all about money," says Kuper. "They can say, 'Miracles happen—this beautiful little team can win the league with team spirit and willpower because they're a bunch of mates,' and all the rest of it. But the true story of the Premier League is that it is almost all about money."

In that case, Leicester, with its relatively small wage bill, should be back at or near the bottom of the league, its natural home—if you buy the central thesis of Soccernomics . But it's not quite that simple.

"In the short term, you can get anomalies," says Kuper. "Over a single season in English football, the relationship between wage bill and league position is about 70 percent. That's a strong correlation, but random elements and luck come into it. You get lucky refereeing decisions. You find a Jamie Vardy. Teams who would normally win the league suddenly fall apart. But if you average it out over 10 seasons, the correlation between the wage bill and league position goes up to 90 percent. Over 10 seasons, luck evens out, so what you are left with is the wage bill, which indicates quality. So the Premier League can say, 'Look, even with the money-driven system, you can get a Leicester!' And it's true. But it'll only happen once every 20-plus years."

Leicester is highly unlikely to repeat its success next season because the special conditions that made this year's performance possible will cease to exist. "It's not sustainable as a policy," says Kuper. "Next season, Leicester will lose their best players"—to wealthier, better-paying teams that offer a more regular chance of success—"and they won't be able to assemble such a good squad on the cheap again. Even if they kept the same squad together two years running, they would have to rely on big clubs failing again, and that's not going to happen again next season."

Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal have all had disappointing seasons. That's an unprecedented coincidence—and it's extremely unlikely to happen again, not least because the clubs' billionaire owners will likely spend very heavily to make sure this season of underachievement doesn't happen again. (Arsenal is something of an exception, much to the frustration of many of its fans. Its longtime manager, Arsène Wenger, believes in developing rather than buying teams—a policy that has brought him little success in the past decade.) The level of failure at the top this year is so dramatic that none of the elite teams have much chance of winning. The second-placed team right now is Tottenham, which has won the league only twice. The most recent time was in 1961. In other words, Leicester is benefiting greatly from weakened opposition.

And then there's another, even less romantic, explanation for Leicester's surprising success. To some extent, the perception of Leicester as "minnows" and "giant-killers" is a myth. Leicester is poor only in the sense that it has less to spend than a very small group of superrich teams in the richest league in the world, which was made even richer by the most recent TV rights deal, worth £5 billion. The money is shared among the 20 clubs, with teams earning slightly different slices of the cake depending on their final standings. The sums involved mean that even the bottom club will earn nearly £100 million, while the champions will receive about £150 million.

According to a Deloitte survey published in January, Leicester is, in fact, the 12th richest team in England and one of the top 30 richest clubs in the world. Compared with Manchester City or Chelsea, Leicester's budget looks limited. But it has the power to buy such hugely accomplished players as Kanté—statistically the best ball-winner in Europe last season—from other leagues. And it has.

In other words, the Foxes are not no-hopers but minor members of football's aristocracy. They have a hugely experienced foreign coach, a billionaire owner (Thai tycoon Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the chairman of the club, is the founder and CEO of King Power) and a team full of established, well-paid international players, some of whom have won league titles in their own countries.

Yet we cling to the notion that their story is a fairy tale. Why? Because we have a primal urge to believe it.

Perhaps more significant, we want to believe it because football is such a huge part of the globalized culture. More than just a business, or a branch of the entertainment industry, or even a sport, football functions for its devotees as the great shared story of the age. It might be the most universal topic of harmless conversation on the planet.

As the burgeoning number of new statues around football grounds testifies, there is still a hunger for larger–than-life heroes. If Leicester wins the league, the municipal government will probably start naming streets in the city after Ranieri and his team.

Once we looked to kings, politicians or generals to fulfill this role. But in a secular culture in which such figures are no longer held in high esteem, the concept of the brave little club triumphing against all odds fits our need for unsullied heroes we can believe in. Come on, Leicester! Just a few more wins. You can do it.

Even if your astonishing achievement changes almost nothing.

David Winner is the author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer and Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football .