This strange year of our Lord 2016 dealt us a great many surprises in politics and elsewhere. But not even the infamous Brexit or a certain president-elect were as unlikely as Leicester City, a third-tier team just seven years ago and a relegation favorite the season prior, hoisting the Premier League trophy at the end of the 2015-16 season.
It remains a feat that vexes logic and baffles our belief.
Leicester will stand as one of the all-time sporting miracles, made all the more improbable by the club’s relatively puny stature, its economically overwhelming opponents and the seeming hopelessness of its circumstances.
It’s the latter that makes it all so hard to comprehend.
What made Leicester’s run miraculous is that the modern game is supposed to have made the very thing it accomplished impossible – a minnow winning a major league. Certainly, Leicester was the 24th richest club even in the year it was almost relegated. But that’s just the reality of the 21st century Premier League hoovering up much of the money circulating in the sport.
Leicester was up against 11 teams that were richer – two of whom were twice as well off, and four of whom at least three times as wealthy. In a marketplace free of drafts and salary caps and other egalitarian constructs, the talent flows to the highest bidder unconstrained. Which is to say that what the Foxes did, win regardless, isn’t supposed to happen. While its scouting and analytics department did remarkable work unearthing midfield slayer N’Golo Kante, wing wizard Riyad Mahrez and fairytale striker Jamie Vardy, Leicester still didn’t have anywhere near the best players. Claudio Ranieri and his team won thanks to an implausible succession of upsets.
Seven months hence, we still scratch our heads in our attempts to untangle what FC Yahoo’s Story of the Year really means.
What did 2016 say about the state of professional club soccer? Because since the Foxes won the title, they have gone an unimpressive 4-9-5, losing more than twice as many Premier League games as the have won through 18 rounds – although they did cruise to the group victory in their Champions League debut. That may look bad in the context of their championship, but the 16th place this has produced, two spots above the relegation zone, is actually more or less where a club of Leicester’s means belongs.
Leicester in 2016-17 is less a collapse than a regression to the mean. Which really only serves to make its Premiership title more confounding.
Does it suggest something smelling somewhat like parity still exists? It seemed to have gone extinct two decades ago, when Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League in 1995. Or perhaps the champion Foxes underscored that money in the Premier League doesn’t really matter anymore? That everybody has gotten so rich and able to afford good and deep squads – with some just carrying players that are more famous than others – that the money acts like a kind of equalizer?
Now that the Leicester bubble has popped and crashed, there’s just as much evidence – equally little – to suggest that this whole thing was a fluke and an illusion. That Leicester is an outlier, rather than a paradigm and beacon of hope. That, most of all, the Foxes got really lucky. Because 14 of their 23 wins were by a single goal. And seven of those were 1-0 wins – including, remarkably, four in a row.
And that, above all, the other title contenders had simultaneous bad years for varied reasons? And that young and promising teams like Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool just weren’t ready yet?
The counterargument to this, of course, is that Leicester won the league by a full 10 points. That’s quite a margin – bigger than Chelsea’s, the year before; or Manchester City’s, the year before that. Counterpoint to the counterpoint: The Foxes had the fewest points of any champion in six years.
Leicester’s return to its natural habitat, the lower half of the table, could also be seen to confirm soccer’s harsh economic realities. There will be weird seasons from time to time, but the money will always win out in the end. The rich are so prohibitively wealthy as to render competing with them consistently impossible for the not-quite-as-rich.
Who is to say which of these conclusions is the correct one?
What did Leicester City mean?
Ultimately, you can read anything into the Year of the Foxes that you like. Because the great thing about miracles: They’re open to interpretation.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More 2016 in Review: