A few years back, I picked up FIFA 13 to play on my brand-new PS3. It is a game with various modes, including one where you play as a manager of a team. I did and I chose to manage a club from the second-tier of the English footballing system. Leicester City. Leicester City Football Club. LCFC.
This, of course, was a video game with various difficulty settings. I chose an easy setting and promptly etched a fairy-tale story of getting LCFC promoted to the first-tier, winning the premier league and yes, the European Champions League too while I was at it. It took me a matter of few days to acquire these faux trophies.
Yesterday, though, LCFC did this for real. A team of 23 players, fighting off relegation from the top tier of English football, rose through the ranks, played out of their skins and beat odds of 5000-1 to finish as the champions of English football. Outside of football, very few are able to appreciate the significance of this achievement.
Unlike Boris Becker winning Wimbledon as an unseeded rookie, this wasn’t a two-week affair. It wasn’t an individual achievement.
Unlike a previously undefeated Mike Tyson getting knocked out by underdog Buster Douglas, this wasn’t just one past champion being dethroned. Multiple championship winners were laid by the wayside as LCFC marched on.
Unlike Greece winning Euro 2004, this was no knock-out tournament where form and luck can get you across the fence. This was a 9-month slog of 38 matches.
Unlike the famous Jamaican bobsled team at the Winter Olympics, LCFC finished the job. This wasn’t an unfinished affair.
Unlike Lance Armstrong’s rampant siege of the Tour De France, this was no dope-infused victory. (Of course, if you don’t want to ignore the ‘IfNotForPearsonSonOrgyInThailand’ story).
Football is a supremely difficult sport. It is demanding – you have to be 100% in the game throughout. It is physical – you are running throughout. It is hazardous – injuries can hurt and set you back months.
Apart from this, in a game lasting 90 minutes, it is imperative that all eleven members of a team have crystal-clear coordination and timing among and between each other. Sixty-six separate one-on-one connections that need to work every single game to ensure victory.
Now, extend this thought experiment – there are a further 12 members of the team who operate as substitutes and reserves. Every time a team member is replaced, new connections need to work as well as the old to maintain winning form.
This is true of all football leagues around the world. The top ones have 20 teams in the top tier. Every year there is a champion. So, what’s so special with what LCFC have done? Every there is a champion and so there is one now for the 2015-16 season.
Only that Leicester were playing in the third tier of the footballing system 6 years back. During those six years, they have fought up through similar grueling seasons of 40+ matches to move up the promotion ladder.
Aren’t there other teams that have done this? Yes, except for crossing that last, enormous hurdle of actually finishing as the winners of the English Premier League.
That honor has been shared by just 5 teams (Manchester United, Chlesea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers) of which only 3 have won it more than twice in the last 25 years.Since football is such a commercial sport, it has been seen and expected that teams that have the funds to spend on top players, coaches and support staff are the only ones who are able to finish as champions. Like a capitalist system gone wrong, the ones at the top keep rising further and the ones at the bottom are in endless relegation battles. There is a set pattern to this dance every year. Bottom-placed clubs occasionally win matches against the big clubs to bring some rare moments of joy to their supporters but no one realistically expects them to win enough number of times to finish as champions.
But, this season, LCFC did just that. Every weekend, since September, when they first rose to the top of the league, commentators would brush them aside and talk about how they’ll drop momentum soon. Who could blame them? It happens every season. A surprise outsider in the top 4 only for injuries and fatigue to set in and push them down.