My husband texted me early Sunday morning while I was still in Denver. On his morning walk he encountered a huge fox in the neighborhood. Leicester City’s match was due to start. This could only mean one thing: Leicester City–the Foxes–were going to tie up the Premiership Sunday morning by winning at Manchester United.
When my friends and I were watching Arsenal v. Norwich on Saturday at The British Bulldog, one of my friends saw the standings at the end of the match and said, “Oh, no problem; Arsenal made the playoffs.” I explained that the Premier League is settled in a vastly different way than American sports. In nearly all sports, teams play in divisions. Although they play some teams in other divisions, the winner is settled by the top teams in a division proceeding to playoffs where they compete head to head against other teams, round by round, until the final game or series of games in which only two teams are standing. The winner of that game or series is the winner. This is true even in Major League Soccer.
In American sports, it never happens that the winner of a league is decided before the last game. That the Premier League can be settled before the season is over is quite confusing for casual observers.
The point system for settling the League and the fact that each team plays each other team, home and away, rewards the team with the most consistency across a very long period. Arsenal beat Leicester City twice, but Leicester City beat lots of teams that Arsenal couldn’t.
The length of the season and the point system are reasons that it’s unnecessary to settle most matches with a win, something else that Americans often find puzzling about soccer. “What’s with all those ties?” Most sports Americans watch end with a winner.Teams keep playing until there is one. If it takes 11 innings or has to take place at another time, so be it.
It turned out that Leicester City didn’t win the League on Sunday; they ended up tying Manchester United, 1-1. Their point total after Sunday’s match wasn’t enough to ensure that they couldn’t be passed up by Tottenham, whose next match was on Monday.
I started to wonder if the fox my husband saw wasn’t producing a different message. If only he’d seen a rooster sitting on a soccer ball, the message would have been clearer.
If it’s hard for my friends to understand how a league can be settled before the season is even over, how much harder to understand how a team who is not even playing can win the Premier League on Monday? Tottenham managed to go ahead of Chelsea by two goals by half time and then let Chelsea score two goals. A Tottenham win would have pushed the conclusion out for at least one more week, but a Tottenham tie was just not enough.
And so Leicester City won the Premier League on Monday with two matches left to play in the season.
Although I don’t love Leicester City, it’s hard not to love their story. A team that was nearly relegated last year, who made smart but minimal investment in players, brought in an elderly manager with little prior success who everyone believed would be the first guy sacked this season. This team somehow produced the miracle of beating out rich teams full of talented players led by successful managers…all of them.
It’s hard to imagine that this kind of miracle will be repeated any time soon, but it will go a long way toward helping us fans understand that the thing we often say–that no one believes–is really true: Anything can happen.
A minnow beating a shark in one game is what makes sport great. On this large scale, where the minnow wins the entire league? It makes sport amazing. It explains why we stay captivated.
It’s not only true in sport, but in all human endeavor. Where there’s a chance, well, there’s a chance. It’s why we will our loved ones to go on when their health is failing, and why we get back together with our problem boyfriends, and why we keep submitting our great American novel to yet another publisher.
It’s why next week–against my better judgement–I will attempt the world’s longest professional long shot.
Because that’s what the fox said.