Sporting Life

The world is caught up with the mystery and romance of Leicester's win

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri (centre) is mobbed by fans as he leaves an Italian restaurant after lunch on May 3, the day after winning the English Premier League title.
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri (centre) is mobbed by fans as he leaves an Italian restaurant after lunch on May 3, the day after winning the English Premier League title. PHOTO: AFP

Excellence in sport must have a reason. Superiority better be explained. We want success to be dismembered into rational and scientific parts such as weights lifted, tactics taught, miles ran, calories eaten, lessons learnt. We want brilliance to be broken down into sensible bits and yet the best bit of Leicester City's story is that right now it does not make complete sense. In their mystery, lies their appeal.

A catalogue of explanations has been chewed on for weeks: It's the pizza-eating, the counter- attacking, the canny coach, the big-club coma, the rest days, the team spirit. It doesn't explain it. Not fully. Why did they respond to this coach? Why did Jamie Vardy score so heavily this season? Why did players rejected from clubs play well now and not then?

In the midst of frenetic campaigns, soaked in adrenaline, athletes don't stop to articulate themselves. They just play. Only now, in the weeks ahead, removed from the action, will players start to describe their ride more fully. Biographies will spill out and business books are imminent. As much as I'd like to read those accounts, it's the long, mad, enigmatic, emotional journey, as it happened, which consumed us. It wasn't magic, but it felt like.

On Sunday night, a friend, not invested in the EPL, messaged from abroad: "Are you watching?" Yesterday, a colleague's 69-year-old mother woke up with one question: "Did Leicester win?"

It didn't matter if we couldn't spell, pronounce or find Leicester on a map, or failed to recite their team list like a familiar hymn, we nevertheless felt their gravitational pull. We found ourselves saying, "Go guys" to a team in which geographically, historically, emotionally, culturally, we had no connection. Because they were offering us so much of what we want from sport.

If the extraordinary player is beloved because he breaks limits, then these men built romance. If the grand team are hailed for how they consistently own the spotlight, then these men are idealists chasing just a single moment in a crowded sun. If the great side are cherished because their skill is otherwordly, then this team, these misfits, these forgotten, these discarded, are treasured because they are more real.

If the extraordinary player is beloved because he breaks limits, then these men built romance. If the grand team are hailed for how they consistently own the spotlight, then these men were idealists chasing just a single moment in a crowded sun.

They are the unflashy trier and the head-down workhorse. They come from no celebrated school nor pedigreed background. They have no starry surliness nor no swagger - they only puncture everyone else's.

It is why in the never-ending archive of sporting surprises, Leicester now head my list. Teams have arrived from worse circumstances such as Denmark, who had not even qualified for the 1992 European Championship which they eventually won. But Leicester had to fight the hardest foe in sport: time.

Robin Soderling had to play a single sublime match against Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French Open. Greece played six to win the 2004 European Championship. India played eight to snatch the 1983 cricket World Cup. But this took 36 matches. Enough time to lose their nerve, to return to their level of averageness, to be intimidated by the size of their quest. And yet they didn't and they weren't and in the process Leicester did two remarkable things.

First, they reminded us that sport is nothing without faith. Faith of young men in this strange, gentle coach who didn't spit on a fourth referee, nor demean his rivals, nor pout endlessly about penalties. Faith of a team in their improbable dream. And faith of the fans in their improbable team.

Second, they resuscitated the dying idea of equality in sport. On a lopsided sporting planet, fortune has tended to favour the financially sound in team sport and victory has appeared to emerge from deep pockets. But the rest of sport, those without mind rooms and biomechanics labs , hi-tech gyms and star coaches, they need a spokesman. They need proof that sport is still worth playing. They need to believe their day will come. They need confirmation there are other and simpler ways to win. This is Leicester's profound gift to the world.

Soon the players will go on holiday and some might retire and others might transfer out and next season their odds will be shorter and their expectations larger. Nothing in sport stays the same, nor should it. Yet 25 years from now when they meet, middle-aged men with receding hair and expanding paunches and differing lives, they will always talk of 2016. A good team who forged a great season, forever glued together by their perfect time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2016, with the headline 'The world is caught up with the mystery and romance of Leicester's win'. Print Edition | Subscribe