For as long as competitive sport has existed, there has been a fascination with the “underdog”—the player or team that defies the odds to win it all, snatches victory from the imminent jaws of defeat, and leaves us all wide-eyed and flushed with excitement. The triumph of the rejects, the failures, and the you’ll-never-be-good-enoughs over the established elite incites in ourselves the belief that anything is possible with hard work and a little luck. Whether it’s a “Miracle on Ice” or Mike Tyson’s KO at the hands of a certain Buster Douglas, the underdog is as American as apple pie: sporting’s version of the American Dream.
Therefore, it is all the more surprising when the most recent sports shakeup occurred not in the United States, but in the comparatively more hierarchical society of England. Add into the mix that the Premier League—England’s top tier of professional soccer—is dominated by a handful of wealthy teams that win the competition year after year, and the tale of Leicester City’s title triumph during the 2015–2016 season is arguably the greatest underdog story in the history of sport.
In a league where the rich get richer and the winners keep on winning, Leicester’s capture of the title is nothing short of a miracle. This year’s champions played in the third tier of English soccer seven years ago, and just last season were sitting rock-bottom of the table at Christmas. In addition, the financial disparity between the Premier League’s top dogs and the rest of the teams is vast. Manchester City and Arsenal boast rosters worth eight times and four times as much as Leicester’s, respectively. Manchester United alone has spent 250 million pounds since the summer of 2014. Unlike American sports leagues such as the National Football League, the Premier League has no salary caps of any sort, nor do the poor performers get the brightest college talents. The absence of these equalization measures as well as the proliferation of lucrative kit and TV deals has allowed the big players to maintain a stranglehold on the league title: only five teams besides Leicester have ever won the Premier League.
So how did they do it? Most analysts agree that a close-knit team effort and the underachievement of the traditional top teams were responsible for the East Midlands club’s unprecedented success. Leicester’s squad was by no means the most talented or experienced, but what it did possess was cohesiveness, resilience, and sheer will. When other teams fielded star-studded lineups, Leicester beat them through a combination of solid defensive work, industrious midfielders, and a dynamic attack featuring the fast and energetic striker Jamie Vardy. Every hard-fought victory was the fruit of each player working together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Furthermore, although it would be foolish to dismiss Leicester’s title as pure luck, the Foxes were able to have things their way for the most part. Early elimination from both domestic cup competitions meant they could concentrate on the league, while minimal injuries ensured the starting eleven jelled together. Crucially, the other teams that should have been challenging for the title were never consistent enough to pose a serious threat. Defending champions Chelsea disintegrated in the first few months and Manchester City faded after a bright start. Arsenal succumbed to its perennial mid-season meltdown. All of these factors contributed to Leicester City winning its first top-level title in its 132-year history.
For non-followers of international soccer, this achievement may seem remote. Although the Premier League is relatively foreign to most of the student body, the same determination to overcome the odds, regardless of sport, can be found much closer to home. The PHS boys soccer team faced Group III reigning state champions Allentown on three separate occasions during the 2014 season, including games in the [Mercer County Tournament] final and in the sectional semifinal.
“All three times, we were underdogs. NJ.com predicted the games, and every single time we were predicted to lose… every single time we beat them. I think it says a lot about our team, and how the best doesn’t always have to win,” Sam Serxner ’17 said.
When asked about what the team members can take away from Leicester’s inspirational season, Serxner responded: “We’re losing 16 seniors this year, so next year we’re going to be in a very different situation… Leicester was a team that came from out of nowhere to win the Premier League title, and nobody gave them a chance, and they had team unity and came together as a group, and I think if we can do that, we can do a lot of the same things as Leicester.”
Leicester’s can-do spirit and ability to come together is by no means exclusive to soccer. Other Princeton High School sports teams have experienced such “Leicester moments” and have achieved more than was expected of them. “This winter, we had a perfect Leicester moment at sectionals. The whole season, it had been the girls team at PHS who had been expected to do really well at sectionals. But until a week before sectionals, we didn’t think we really had a shot at it… we ended up winning the section for the first time since the 1980s,” said Jeremy Cohen ’16, a jumper.
For the track team, victory came down to seizing the opportunity and the realization that the chances for success are few and far between.
“It took us a while to realize ‘Hey, we can do this,’ but when we got out there on the track, it really looked like it was going to happen. Also like Leicester, we took our chances—this is the sort of shot Leicester will not have again for a really long time. Once you have a shot to win something, you just have to go out there and take it.” For PHS sports teams in the future, Cohen hopes they “will realize, even though we’re not expected to be a great sports school, we can also get upset wins in everyday matches and on the big stage.”
Leicester City has repeatedly demonstrated throughout the 2015–2016 season that—even in an era of enormous imbalance—enough resilience, team spirit, and a little luck is enough to conquer even the most daunting of obstacles. The significance of Leicester’s triumph is not limited to the sporting world. Rather, it has been, and will continue, to be an inspiration to people everywhere, serving as a reminder of just how much can be achieved with so little.