Team of the Decade

On January 1, 2010, if you had told me I would be more interested in the outcome of a Leicester City Football Club match than an University of Illinois basketball game, I would have looked at you like you were absolutely insane. And some questions would have come to mind:

-Leicester City Football Club?
-Where is Leicester?
-Did Illinois discontinue basketball or something?

Yet, as we near 2020, here we stand, where a Leicester City game is of more interest to me than an Illini basketball contest. Because of the remarkable, literally magical, story that produced such a shocking outcome, Leicester City, an oft-floundering franchise in the East Midlands of England (literally the eastern center of the country, the English are a practical lot), is my “Team of the Decade” in sports.

During this past decade, many Americans have become loyal fans of English Premier League (EPL) teams. A sport to which they had never given much thought rapidly evolved into a weekend morning passion. I was not amongst these fans. Before America had discovered club soccer, I was dragging my father to a Scottish Premier League game (Motherwell v. Aberdeen, the home side is listed first) in 2001, attending a Fiorentina versus Atalanta Serie A contest later on the same trip (my dad had gone home, a good friend and his brother were now in tow), and even hitting a Manchester United against Boca Juniors exhibition match (again with my father, who very much likes to tell people he’s been to Old Trafford) while in Manchester for a day. But despite this, I couldn’t have told you a thing about Leicester City Football Club (LCFC) ten years ago today.

How things have changed …

1.     40 POINTS … TO GLORY

When Claudio Ranieri was named LCFC manager in the summer of 2015 (after a scandal had felled his predecessor Nigel Pearson), he set one goal for his team’s next season – 40 points from 38 games.  For the uninitiated regarding soccer, teams are awarded three points for a win, one point for a tie, and zero for a loss.  40 points in the EPL is a below average season, but it is near certain to provide one all-important outcome for an English soccer team, survival in the top league, which sees the bottom three teams “relegated” to a lower level the next season.

Leicester City boss Claudio Ranieri: Our goal is 40 points

See Leicester, which had spent the 2014-15 season in the EPL (the highest level of English soccer) for the first time since 2003-04, had barely survived to play in the English Premier League in 2015-16.  Sitting in dead last with only nine of the 38 games remaining in the season and seven points adrift from avoiding relegation, LCFC went on a remarkable run to win seven of its final nine games (having won only four of its first 29) and to secure a spot in the 2015-16 Premiership with a total of … 41 points.  Termed “The Great Escape” and heralded as one of the best ever accomplishments for a soccer club that had never, in its century plus history, won a top flight championship, it was but a preview for the glory to follow.

For Leicester’s 2015-16 campaign provided one of the most remarkable, unthinkable, extraordinary, and yes, magical, seasons in the history of sports.  Given a 5,000:1 shot to win the English Premier League by bookmakers, Leceister rose to the occasion in both its biggest matches and its most mundane, capitalized on nearly every opportunity, piled up favorable results across the calendar, and spent an entire year in athletics dreamland.  Led by Jamie Vardy, the waif-thin and lightning-fast striker who had been discarded by professional teams in his teens and worked his way back from outcast playing at the lower levels with an ankle monitor to bonified EPL superstar; Riyad Mahrez, the diminutive Algerian with a penchant for scoring brilliant goals; N’Golo Kante, the yeoman defensive midfielder whose resume now includes World Cup 2018 hero for France; Kasper Schmeichel, the athletic goaltender whose nascent career had seen him released from Manchester United despite his father being United’s greatest ever netminder; and hardened defensive stalwarts Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, LCFC recorded a stunning 81 points for the season … a staggering 41 more than the 40 point goal and, most importantly, 10 more than second place.  Leicester City had done the absolutely unthinkable, and won an EPL championship against far wealthier, more historically successful, and more prestigious franchises in only its second season in the EPL after more than a decade playing at lower levels.  This was not just a dare to dream season for Leicester; it was a victory for every sports fan that has ever rooted for a hopeless cause.

While Leicester City highlights from 2015-16 abound, this goal from Vardy against 18-time champion Liverpool probably best represents what is probably the greatest team championship ever won, against all rational odds.


For an English soccer team like Leicester City, the promised land is not winning the championship (it’s near unimaginable for clubs with respectable but far from elite histories), it is merely making the Premier League and then avoiding relegation.  After the 2008 season, Leicester wasn’t just outside the EPL, it was legions away, playing in League One, the third level of English soccer.  After a 2009 promotion from League One, LCFC found itself beginning the decade in “The Championship,” the second level of English soccer.  The Championship is a quality league with real professionals and good attendance, but it is the English equivalent of AAA baseball, not quite the “big leagues.”  However, unlike American professional sports, the top teams at the second level of English soccer have a bullet, as the relegated EPL sides are replaced by the promoted Championship teams.  By 2013, Leicester had put itself in position for possible promotion to the EPL, and stared down a simple penalty kick conversion to advance to a do-or-die game at fabled Wembley Stadium for the right to play in the 2013-14 Premier League.  And then this happened.

Picking up the pieces from the gut-wrenching loss to Watford in the previous year’s Championship playoffs, Leicester City would march to a nine-point triumph in the 2013-14 Championship, taking home the second-division title and securing an automatic promotion to the 2014-15 Premier League.  It would not be Leicester’s final title of the decade.

3.     TRAGEDY

Following the improbable 2015-16 EPL championship, Leicester settled in to several mid-table EPL seasons, solid results for a club that, less than a decade prior, was two levels away from English soccer’s top flight but still far from recent glory.   And then, in October 2018, the club suffered yet another unthinkable moment, this time a tragedy.  Team owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai billionaire who purchased the club in 2010 (a fact not in any way coincidental to Leicester’s team of the decade designation), perished in a fiery helicopter accident in the stadium’s parking lot.  In his long-established postgame ritual, Khun Vichai, as the owner was known, was picked up on the grass field and flown out of the stadium.  On this dark night, he took his final ill-fated flight, and met his end so close to King Power Stadium that the aforementioned Schmeichel literally witnessed the crash and its haunting aftermath.


Not surprisingly, Leicester City — holder of the most fantastical championship ever won in team sports, champion at two levels of English soccer, tough-luck loser in one of the games of the decade, and victim of a true organizational tragedy — has once again risen to the rarified air of excellence.  Barely more than a year removed from unspeakable tragedy, Leicester sits in second place nearly halfway through the 2019-20 Premier League season.

Don’t bet against yet another miracle from Leicester City Football Club.  The Team of the Decade.