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Soccer

Column: Leicester City’s EPL run is a story fit for a king

Leicester City celebrates

Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki, left, celebrates with teammates Jamie Vardy, leaping, and Daniel Drinkwater after scoring against Newcastle during an EPL game on March 14.

(Rui Vieira / Associated Press)

Leigh Herbert freely admits he had been drinking before he made the bet. After all, it’s easier to defend being drunk than it is to defend being stupid.

In reality, he probably had to be a little of both last August when he put down five pounds — about $7 — on Leicester City to win the English Premier League.

The British bookmakers said the odds of that happening were 5,000 to 1. A month later they set the odds of Kim Kardashian becoming president at a mere 1,000 to 1.

“The first thing I thought the next day was that I’d lost that fiver,” Herbert, who will make more than $35,000 if his wager pays off, told the BBC.

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The money is now secondary for Herbert, because Leicester City, the team he has rooted for since grade school, is on the verge of history. The Foxes, who have never won a first-division title in their 132-year history — they haven’t even finished second since 1929 — entered Sunday’s match with relegation-bound Sunderland leading the EPL by seven points with six games to play.

Two years ago they weren’t even in the Premier League, playing in the second-tier Championship instead. It would be as if a minor league baseball team won the World Series two seasons after being promoted to the big leagues.

But that’s just scratching the surface of improbability. No league in the world is more controlled by money than the EPL, which is why the teams with the top four payrolls have combined to win the last 20 titles. It’s a dogfight Leicester (pronounced Less-ter) entered with a Chihuahua on a lease.

The team’s estimated payroll of $67 million is not only a third of what Chelsea is paying its players, it’s less than the skinflint Miami Marlins are spending on their roster.

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The credit for Leicester’s stunning rise goes to three men: Coach Claudio Ranieri, sacked by the Greek national team 17 months ago after losing to the lowly Faroe Islands; striker Jamie Vardy, who was making $50 a game playing for a semipro team five years ago; and King Richard III, who last saw action near Leicester in the War of the Roses more than 500 years ago.

Let’s start with the king.

Richard III ruled England for only two years before being slain in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. After his death Richard’s body was taken to Leicester and paraded triumphantly around the town before it was buried in an unmarked grave and lost to history for more than five centuries.

The remains were eventually discovered beneath a parking lot in 2012 and 13 months ago, in a funeral fit for a king, they were reburied in Leicester Cathedral, just a mile from King Power Stadium.

The city’s soccer club was mired in last place and seemed destined for relegation at the time, but after Richard III was laid to rest, Leicester City got hot, winning seven of its final nine games last year and losing only three times this season. Since the reburial, the Foxes have won nearly two-thirds of their games; in their previous 41 EPL games they had won only eight.

If Richard III gave the team a touch of royalty, Vardy represents the working classes. Ten years ago he was playing for a neighborhood team made up partly of factory workers — and playing part-time at that. After an incident outside a pub, a court gave Vardy a curfew and ordered him to wear an electronic tracking device, which meant he had to be subbed out of some games early and rushed home to avoid violating his sentence.

As recently as 2012 he was working nine-hour shifts making medical splints and had all but given up on soccer as a career when Leicester City called. Given a reprieve, he scored 20 goals over the next two seasons in the second-tier Championship. This season he netted goals in a record 11 consecutive EPL matches and scored 19 times overall, second only to Harry Kane’s 22 for Tottenham.

If that sounds like the script for a Hollywood movie, you’re too late. British producer Adrian Butchart said his proposed screenplay has been warmly received and filming reportedly could begin this summer.

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But Vardy, 29, isn’t the only stray Leicester has rescued. Tireless midfielder N’Golo Kante, 25, was playing in the lower tiers of French soccer three years ago; this season he’s a candidate for EPL player of the year. Riyad Mahrez, 25, was languishing in France’s Ligue 2; this season he’s scored a career-high 16 times and is second the EPL with 11 assists. And midfielder Danny Drinkwater, 26, has gone from the third tier of English soccer to the national team.

Ranieri is the one who squeezed career seasons out of those players and others, such as Jamaican defender Wes Morgan. In turn they have saved Ranieri, a 64-year-old Italian whose hiring last spring elicited chuckles around the league.

Ranieri said he was asked to do nothing more than keep Leicester City from being relegated and given a goal of 40 points. Leicester reached that the day after New Year’s.

The grandfatherly Ranieri exceeded those modest expectations by appealing to his team’s pride and by convincing the players he sees something in them no one else has seen. He’s also kept the building pressure at bay with wacky stunts, such as promising the team a pizza party if it shut out an opponent.

When Leicester blanked Crystal Palace 10 games into the season, Ranieri took over the kitchen of a pizzeria in the town square and forced the players to make their own dinner.

His team has posted a dozen shutouts since then and hasn’t given up a goal in more than a month.

Now what are the odds on that?


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