It’s the stuff of sporting fairy tales.
Leicester City Football Club are on the verge of winning one of the most coveted championships in the world of soccer.
This, despite bookmakers offering odds of 5,000-to-one of it happening back at the beginning of the season. That’s less likely than Elvis still being alive or Simon Cowell becoming the next U.K. prime minister.
Analysts, pundits, fans and players have been incredulous as unfancied Leicester City – pronounced “Lester” and nicknamed The Foxes – has clung to the top spot through the last eight months. The club – based in a city in the East Midlands of England with a population of 330,000 – are now just one win away from winning the Premiership.
Beating the record-breakers
What makes this feat all the more surprising is that up until now just five clubs have won the competition since its inception in 1992. Added to that, Leicester narrowly avoided relegation in the season before and its record signing is just £9 million ($13 million) for the Croatian Andrej Kramaric, whereas the record for the league stands at £60 million.
Audit firm Deloitte calculated that Leicester’s wage costs in the 2014/15 season were £57 million, telling CNBC that “this ranks fairly low in comparison to other clubs.”
Thai billionaire and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha – owner of travel retail group King Power – is not short of cash but is a mere minnow compared to some bank balances in the league. A recent tie against former champions Manchester City saw a team worth £22 million in total take on a £230 million squad of superstars.
“It’s like a Rocky movie, we had been written off and continued to be written off at every point during the season,” Rob Tanner, an author and sportswriter for the local Leicester Mercury newspaper told CNBC via telephone.
A number of reasons have been given for the club’s rise to the top, including its deployment of “moneyball” tactics made famous by Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics baseball team in the early part of the last decade.
Assistant manager and scout Steve Walsh – who famously found soccer superstar Didier Drogba for Chelsea – has foraged the foreign leagues for players for Leicester and found prized gems in the form of Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez – who signed for a reported £400,000 in January 2014 and has 18 goals to his name so far this season.
But many point to the shortcomings of the usual soccer superpowers as another reason for Leicester’s success. The league has been criticized for being somewhat of an oligopoly but the big-spending clubs have been held back by their own periods of restructuring and rebuilding.
“Money has made the big clubs lazy, they are losing their way… they don’t to any research when buying players and just pay the highest price,” Tanner told CNBC.
The club have also be blessed by a lack of injuries when other teams have suffered setbacks and have notably formed a feeling of team spirit. Iwan Roberts, a former player for the club during the 1990s, told CNBC Friday that a Leicester victory would give “all teams hope” with the club languishing in the division below just a few years ago.
“It’s just snowballed, it really has,” Roberts said.
“They deserve all the credit in the world because I’ve never seen a team with such energy and a spirit about them. And I think that’s what’s taken them to the top of the Premier League.”
Another attribute during the the club’s season has been their style of play. Purists to the game might suggest that the club plays ugly “long ball” style football but fans praise what they call a “sophisticated and direct” approach to the game. Meaning, the players soak up heavy pressure from their opponents and quickly counter after stealing the ball with hungry attackers willing to run and fight for possession. Indeed, a recent game which the team won four-nil saw it have just 38 percent of possession during the whole match.
There’s no denying that Leicester’s success – if it does manage to successfully reach the finishing line over the next few weeks – would be against all odds and a win for prudence over financial folly. (CNBC)