Friday, December 4, 2015

Leicester City: The Underdog that European Soccer Needs

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

The Underdog -- More than a word, it’s a story.

A story we love not only in sport, but in life.

From Buster Douglas’ punch that rocked Mike Tyson in the Tokyo dome, to Jeremy Lin moving the world’s most famous arena into pandemonium. Our underdogs come in all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds. It’s one of the few times our prejudices get placed on the backburner, as we sit rubbing our eyes asking “is this real?”

Our latest fascination comes from a small city in the East Midlands of England, and a club that finished 14th in last season’s Barclays Premier League.

Not much was expected this season from Leicester City. After all, they barely escaped relegation and made no significant additions over the offseason. Their moment in the sun arrived when video surfaced showing players Tom Hopper, Adam Smith and James Pearson (the manager's son) participating in an orgy filled with racist remarks during a postseason “goodwill” tour of Thailand. All three players subsequently had their contracts terminated, along with manager Nigel Pearson getting sacked.

Reacting Swiftly, Leicester appointed Claudio Ranieri -- who has seemingly managed every team on the planet -- as it’s new coach. Once labeled “the tinkerman” for an almost innate desire to tweak his tactics and shuffle lineups while at Chelsea, the Italian was seen as an odd choice.

Coming into Saturday, the table leaders don’t hail from London, Manchester, or even Liverpool.

They come from Leicester.

Each and every weekend the foxes trot out a team with a total payroll of $55.18 million. The “big 5” of England (Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool) each trot out nothing less than $217.12 million.

They have scored the second most goals in the league, playing an exciting brand of football predicated on counter attacks and swarming the ball. Ranieri’s tactics have been set up to perfectly complement the skill sets of his two best players.

Those two players encompass the underdog more than the team itself, and that is exactly what makes this story so fun.

Jamie Vardy’s footballing journey began at his boyhood club of Sheffield Wednesday. His dream wouldn’t last long, as he was released for being too small. Crushed, Vardy had given up on his footballing dream before a friend at his college convinced him to give it another try. He eventually signed with Stocksbridge Park Steels (aren’t these names glorious?) before getting into some trouble off of the pitch.

He was placed on a 6pm to 6am house arrest, sometimes having to leave a game halfway through in order to make it back home in time. Struggling to make ends meat, Vardy took up a part-time job as a carbon-fiber technician during his down time.

Four years ago at the age of 24, Vardy was toiling in the 5th division of English football, running down mud-soaked pitches in stadiums that more resembled a medieval dungeon. Eventually it paid off, as he helped lead Fleetwood to the conference title and their first ever promotion to the Football League. It was also the first time Vardy would be playing amongst full-time professionals.

Leicester City took notice and signed the Englishman in 2012.

In the three years since, he totaled 26 goals -- not exactly setting the world on fire.

The doubts continued all the way to this weekend, as title contenders Manchester United came into town. Leicester held their own, drawing 1-1, but the biggest story belonged to Vardy. His first half goal marked the 11th straight game he has scored, setting a new Premier League record. His 14 goals are 4 more than anyone else in the league. England has called him up to their national team, and Chelsea and Manchester United are reportedly preparing $41 million offers for his services in January.

It’s no coincidence that Vardy’s ascendance has coincided with Riyad Mahrez. The Algerian winger, who himself dug out of the lower leagues of France, has at times looked like the best wing player in England. His seven goals are tied for 5th in the league, but it’s his runs down the flank that turn the most heads.

With no fear, Riyad runs right at defenders, legs always moving so fast that defenders don’t know where to look next. He has dished out six assists, a number only beaten by Mesut Özil, and sets up an average of 2.3 shots for his teammates every game, a rate that puts him in the top 10 league-wide.

Before this weekend, the Foxes hadn’t yet faced Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, and (yes, current play be damned) Chelsea. The United game kicked off a seven-match stretch where six of their opponents will come from that group of very solid teams (and Chelsea) that their schedule fortuitously allowed them to avoid until now.

No one in their right mind believes that Leicester can stay in a European qualifying spot, let alone win the title.

But isn’t that what underdogs are all about?

The unknown. The shock. Will it last?

For 90 minutes every weekend a young Leicester City fan will be in that stadium, or in front of their T.V, looking at Jamie Vardy inspired: They can be next.

After what we have witnessed so far this season, who are we to doubt them?

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