The greatest achievement in the history of sport, possibly

by Chris Bertram on May 2, 2016

Spurs threw it away, totally lost their heads tonight, so Leicester win the Premier League with two games to spare. It is hard to think of a sporting achievement that compares to Leicester City’s. 5000/1 at the start of the season, widely tipped for relegation, and now [this](



js. 05.02.16 at 10:38 pm

It’s crazy. I don’t know the history of the English top-flight well enough to know how this compares to Nottingham Forest, Ipswich, etc. (these being the comparisons lately most mentioned), but esp. given the constraints of the PL era, it’s utterly astounding.


bob mcmanus 05.02.16 at 11:11 pm

1954 Milan Ind; Villanova 1985

But maybe like Milan beating the Jordan Bulls?

Questions I have include how many games, wins it took to get this Championship; a season, whatever that is, or a half-dozen in a tourney

And I read that coaching and management deserves a lot of credit, that these footballers were not talentless but overlooked and then brilliantly handled, IOW, not quite like Milan vs Bulls.


Harry 05.02.16 at 11:19 pm

36 games played, 22 won.


Cranky Observer 05.02.16 at 11:43 pm

Plus a new mark for the Chicago Cubs to aim for: 131 years without a championship!


Alan White 05.02.16 at 11:49 pm

I listened to the raucous last minute on BBC world news this afternoon. As ignorant as I am of the traditions here, pretty incredible I’d have to say.

This raises an interesting question about what constitutes the greatest sporting achievement. What I mean is that if one parses this question in particular games of a sport, then Leicester might have a good claim (as might Villanova even in 2016 given the realities of “amateur” college basketball). But if one thinks of accomplishments of a type, my own Lady Vols (cringe at the name) just this year dropped out of the top 25 for the first time in 31 years. And then there’s personal accomplishment in terms of an ideal: Tiger Woods holding all four major champion titles from 2000-2001. I highly doubt anyone will duplicate that again, much less win all four in one year (Spieth’s two in a row last year was incredible enough).

But this Leicester win must rank right up there even if we combine subsets into some grand “greatest” category here.


js. 05.02.16 at 11:56 pm

One thing to note is that pulling off this kind of upset is orders of magnitude harder in a straight league structure than in a cup competition or even probably a league with conferences and play-offs. So while I can think of huge tournament upsets (sticking to sports I know: Greece winning the Euros in 2004, India winning the Cricket World Cup in ’83, etc.), this feels significantly different and a bigger achievement.


engels 05.03.16 at 12:00 am

The greatest achievement in the history of sport is and will always be Maradonna’s ‘hand of God’ goal against England in ’86.


bob mcmanus 05.03.16 at 12:23 am

The 69 Miracle Mets seem a close comparison. 6 seasons of 100+ losses, 9th of 10 teams in 1968, 73-89. 1969 100-62, including 38 of 49 to end the season, won on the last day. Went on to win the World Series as heavy underdogs. With as far as I can tell, no strong addition in top level talent, save young Nolan Ryan, injured for most of the season.

But that makes Leicester at least a fifty year int’l event, and Ranieri and the players deserve all congratulations.

I find the lack of parity mechanisms in English football weird and offputting for the 21st Century.


franck 05.03.16 at 12:30 am


I thought the Maradona one after that one in the same goal was actually pretty great too. Just rewatched it since my team is “Light Blue”. Incredible!


franck 05.03.16 at 12:31 am

Ok. “game” not “goal” in the above post.


Lowhim 05.03.16 at 1:54 am

@7, oh come on . His other goal was worth the cost, don’t you think?


Tabasco 05.03.16 at 4:50 am

Congratulations to Leicester City.

Would it be churlish to point out that the team has the 9th highest payroll in the EPL, bankrolled by its billionare owner? Paupers they aint.


sanbikinoraion 05.03.16 at 5:12 am

Yes, but in more than 20 years there has only ever been one until now that the EPL title was not won by one of Arsenal, Chelsea, Man U or Man C. Second-placed Spurs winning it would have been a rarity, Leicester winning it is astonishing considering that they were nearly relegated last season.


Neville Morley 05.03.16 at 5:15 am

A Leicester triumph was verging on narrative determinism; not just the ‘plucky, relatively poor underdog against sleek overconfident monsters’ plot, but also the ‘key player who was playing in the bottom league before potential greatness was recognised’ and the ‘manager whose appointment was ridiculed, as previous achievement was leading Greece into defeat by the Faroe Islands’. Is the goalkeeper half man, half fish?

As js. notes, it’s the fact it’s a league that makes this so remarkable: not just a matter of having a couple of good days when your opponents have bad ones, but needing to be consistently good, or at least bloody-mindedly resilient when things go less well. One of the great advantages of the wealthiest teams is squad depth, the quality of the replacements when injuries and exhaustion kick in; my sense is that Leicester have relied on a smaller number of players with an awful lot more playing time.

The counterfactual question is how far this has also depended on every potential rival being either in the process of rebuilding (with varying degrees of success: ManU, Liverpool), or falling apart unexpectedly (Chelsea), or deciding to undermine their manager by appointing his successor six months early (ManC). Unless we imagine a universe in which Arsenal *don’t* go to pieces every time success seems to be within their grasp, Spurs were the only serious challengers, and that’s a substantial points gap.


reason 05.03.16 at 8:14 am

FC Kaiserslautern 1997-98 is my favourite story, but not quite the same (as they had a long previous history of success).

Relegated two seasons previously, then taken over by Otto Rehhagel who had been sacked by Bayern close to the end of the previous season, they then won in succession the second division and then the first Bundesliga, beating Bayern München twice in the process.


Ronan(rf) 05.03.16 at 10:30 am

Although they were all before my time, I’m not sure if it’s comparable to the great underdog stories of British football, clough at forest , ferguson at Aberdeen, jock stein at Celtic (euro cup) ? (Would you include the Wimbledon of the “crazy gang ” in that? They didn’t win as big a trophy but their rise was just as unusual iirc – non league to FA cup?) All of these were bigger teams in more competitive leagues, with managers who were building teams that performed consistently (afaik) over the next decade. Blackburn at the beginning of the PL had , relatively , a lot of money to spend a better team.
Not being smart, but the closest comparison I can think of are harchester rovers from sky ones great soap “dream team.”
Not taking anything away from Leicester (I lived there for a whole so would have a soft spot for them) but it really shows how weak the English league has become , particularly when Chelsea don’t show up. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a new order, but I have my doubts .


reason 05.03.16 at 12:22 pm


J-D 05.03.16 at 12:29 pm

Alan White @5

‘This raises an interesting question about what constitutes the greatest sporting achievement. … And then there’s personal accomplishment in terms of an ideal: …’

What would you say to a total of only two losses in a career of competition play lasting over twenty years?


Chris Williams 05.03.16 at 12:42 pm

I was out down the Clock Tower and the KP last night, so I’ve got an interest to declare… But why spend time looking for other underdog victories which might be comparable? Why not just think about this one? Think about it a lot. It was amazing.

If some kind of intelligentsia angle is needed, perhaps an extended discussion of ‘the place of unaccountable success for LCFC in the work of Julian Barnes’ will fill that hole?


Ronan(rf) 05.03.16 at 12:55 pm

But where’s the fun for the neutral if they can’t tangentially pontificate ? ; )
I really just wanted to cram in the reference to dream team , which inexplicably is still not available on box set


Gary Othic 05.03.16 at 1:14 pm

Don’t think anyone could deny that this is due to an immense constellation of good fortune all coming together (squad staying uninjured, Spurs having a bad start to the season, Man City falling apart, Chelsea’s implosion, Man Utd being crap, Liverpool in transition, Arsenal being Arsenal etc.) and I’d be willing to bet that their ‘shots on target to conversion’ ration is higher than the expected average would be. Notable as well that other teams struggled to take advantage as well, Southampton, Everton and West Ham.

Having said all that, Leiscester still needed to do the hard work, the field was the same for everyone (Southampton, Everton and West Ham were similar kinds of squads could have, and maybe should have, been able to take advantage but did not), so for Leiscester to have done is still a blinding achievement even taken into account the context.

Something like this has been threatening to happen for a while (Hull, Tottenham, Everton, Southampton have all had good charges at the Top Four before dying away in recent years); but I never imagined that someone from outside of the top pack would actually win the title.


reason 05.03.16 at 1:30 pm

J-D @18
Heather McKay – is there a prise?


hix 05.03.16 at 2:11 pm

1. FC Kaiserslautern 1997/98 in the Bundesliga. (Same coach as Greece in 2004)


Gary Othic 05.03.16 at 2:30 pm

@hix (23)

So both these success stories were founded on people who also managed the Greek national team? I sense a patter here


MPAVictoria 05.03.16 at 3:11 pm

Pffft doesn’t even compare to my finally beating my father in a game of pool last Christmas after decades of trying.


PlutoniumKun 05.03.16 at 3:32 pm

I’m not sure you can make realistic comparisons with other sports. High scoring sports such as basketball or rugby tend to favour the favourites – low scores in soccer ensure that one off ‘shocks’ are more likely. So cross-sports comparisons are very difficult to make.

I don’t think the Foxes achievement can be compared to, for example, Celtic winning the European Cup or Denmark or Greeces achievements in the Euro championship. A minnow has always a much better chance in a knock out competition. Leagues are supposed to give a ‘true’ result. When you look at the remarkable correlation of teams wage costs with league position, you can see that the vast majority of times, league standings give a ‘true’ picture of a teams status.

What is even weirder about the success is that it seems to defy normal analysis. As Ken Early points out in the Irish Times (behind a paywall, but google it, he’s always interesting), there is nothing in the Foxes record this season which is out of the ordinary, except for the percentage of goals scored per chance created. Their possession figures, pass completion figures, tackles made, number of chances created etc., are all pretty average. Their tactics were very good, but not ground breaking, they have done what many teams try to do every year – defend narrow and deep, and score on the counterattack. There is nothing in their statistical record to justify winning the league, apart from their remarkable habit of winning over and over again.

So it was probably just a remarkable fluke – a conglomeration of many different factors producing a perfect season for them, and a bit of a nightmare for the predictable ‘big 4’ teams. Lets not forget Spurs are likely to be second, which you’d probably have gotten pretty long odds for as well back in August. They can usually be relied upon to finish in sixth.

Its still a great story though – one of those lovely moments when sport seems to actually mean something.


reason 05.03.16 at 3:39 pm

Gary Othic @24
But one had club success after complete failure with the Greek national team, and the other had unprecedented success with the Greek national team after his club coup (which must be every sacked trainers dream revenge outcome). Not sure what that indicates exactly, but the parallels are definitely imperfect.


reason 05.03.16 at 3:41 pm

MPAVictoria @25
We won’t ask about dates of birth.-)


Gary Othic 05.03.16 at 3:49 pm

@reason (24)

That regardless of performance being Greek manager is gold dust?


Philippe 05.03.16 at 4:07 pm

Yawn . Sports is just the endless of the same gestures – tackles, passes, lobs – coalesced into identical games rolled into identical seasons tediously repeated the year after year … Packaged in a way to provide a shiny semblance of newness … Sameness under the guise of new jerseys, new names. Every time I walk in front of a TV set playing a game I want to ask the seemingly lobotomized attendance : haven’t you seen this before ? How is this game different from the one you watched last night, last week, last year, two years ago, ten years ago… I suggest we save money and replay entire seasons , in lieu of setting up a show of a new one. This suggests that the only thrill of these contests is the indeterminacy of the outcome . Which in turns explains why the history of the sports industry is the constant history of teams or players beating the odds . There is nothing so unlikely in sports as the prospect of some long odd (unbelievable! yuuuge!) not being beaten at some point in the very near future. Its rigged, folks. Show business. Ringling and Barnum. Its just that if you look at it from the right height and the right aggregation its not only probable , its certain. Of course it is . Entire corporate balance sheets depend on it.


Cranky Observer 05.03.16 at 4:15 pm

= = = Yawn . Sports is just the endless of the same gestures – tackles, passes, lobs – coalesced into identical games rolled into identical seasons tediously repeated the year after year … Packaged in a way to provide a shiny semblance of newness … Sameness under the guise of new jerseys, new names. Every time I walk in front of a TV set playing a game I want to ask the seemingly lobotomized attendance : haven’t you seen this before ? = = =

That description could also be applied to human life; are you advocating mass suicide on a planetary scale?


Mark Palmgren 05.03.16 at 4:23 pm

Fantastic foxes, indeed.

And this hedgehog’s deep-rooted convictions of what is possible in this world have now been upended.


The Temporary Name 05.03.16 at 4:41 pm

Music is just a bunch of notes.


Philippe 05.03.16 at 4:45 pm

| Sports is just the endless of the same gestures

That description could also be applied to human life; are you advocating mass suicide on a planetary scale?

Well, I don’t agree with your characterization of human life. On the contrary. For ex , a quick Google search shows that there is a symphony orchestra in Leicester. There is nothing repetitive and generic about a Mahler symphony. So you can say I’m a lot more impressed by the odds it took for humanity to evolve from a single-cell eukaryote to playing a Mahler symphony in a Leicester music hall than I am by the “exploits” of the football team.


js. 05.03.16 at 5:04 pm

Oh, you Mahler types are the most annoying. Bet you hate Can songs too because, you know, they’re “repetitive”.


Salem 05.03.16 at 5:07 pm

That Mahler symphony has been played before, you know.


Tom Bach 05.03.16 at 5:26 pm

Played almost note for note, one might hope.


Delia Smith 05.03.16 at 5:43 pm

Philippe @ 30 is noteworthy for stating the precise, diametric opposite of the case: “Sports is just the endless [repetition] of the same gestures – tackles, passes, lobs – coalesced into identical games rolled into identical seasons tediously repeated the year after year … ”

In fact sport’s appeal, what distinguishes it from drama, “serious” music and other high art is that there is no repetition, there are no identical games. Note that I say “no”, not “very little”, or “few”; there is never repetition, nor the wish for it.


Trader Joe 05.03.16 at 5:48 pm

We now have an answer, Ipswich Town in 1946

Courtesy of the ever wonderful Five Thirty Eight:


kent 05.03.16 at 6:12 pm

How can anything in sports pay out at 5000-1 odds? I mean, there hasn’t been an England, let alone an English soccer/football league, for even 1,000 years. How can one possibly know or believe that the odds are that long?

Seriously … you could have bet 50 bucks and being walking away with $250,000?

Note to self: find some insanely long shots to bet on.


Igor Belanov 05.03.16 at 6:45 pm

“I don’t think the Foxes achievement can be compared to, for example, Celtic winning the European Cup or Denmark or Greeces achievements in the Euro championship. A minnow has always a much better chance in a knock out competition.”

Of these examples I think only Greece could realistically count as a ‘minnow’. Celtic’s achievement in 1967 was the fact, unbelievable as it would appear now, that all the players were born within about 20 miles of Parkhead. Other than that, it is only in the last 25 years or so that Scottish clubs have seemed like real minnows. Celtic were a big club, in the midst of a run of 10 consecutive Scottish championships, and reached the 1970 European Cup final as well. More significantly, Aberdeen beating Real Madrid in the 1983 Cup-Winners’ Cup Final and Dundee United beating Barcelona en route to the 1987 UEFA Cup Final were real shocks.

Ditto with Denmark in 1992. It was the ‘lucky loser’ status that was the real feature of that success, as they appeared in the finals due to the ban on Yugoslavia (who ironically had a superb team as the country was falling apart). The Danes had narrowly missed out on the 1984 European Championship Final and had beaten West Germany in the 1986 World Cup, so weren’t rank outsiders. Now if Albania play Iceland in the final of this years European Championships….


Tiny Tim 05.03.16 at 8:08 pm

I like Mahler symphonies and some sports (not a megafan, but I enjoy). Those Mahler symphonies have been played nearly identically about a billion times. Of course the small variations in performance and conducting can be interesting and revealing to the trained ear, but that trained ear is precisely trained because…it has listened to the symphony numerous times. Every time I walk past the orchestra I see the violinists just moving their bows back and forth…

High art snobs are annoying. Fine if you think sport is a lowlier activity, but we all like a bit of crap in our lives and I don’t believe anyone who pretends otherwise.


Philip 05.03.16 at 9:34 pm

I am sure I commented on another post here that there would never be a team doing what Nottingham Forest or even Derby did under Clough, well I was wrong. I think I predicted that the money being thrown at Manchester City would mean one of the previous top 4 would fall away, but it has shook things up more than that.

Atletico Madrid have just got into the CL final playing a similar defensive style to Leicster, and which was also successful for Chelsea in previous seasons, see the Marca link. This is opposed to the possession based tiki taka style exemplified by Barcelona and the Spanish national team which became the fashionable style in light of their success. It will be interesting to see which approach teams take especially with Guardiola going to Manchester City.

Kent @ 40, my grandad always used to put 50p on at the start of the season for Sunderland to win the FA cup and in 1973 when we were in the 2nd division we beat the mighty, at the time, Leeds in the final he more than covered his previous bets. Also back then the FA cup was much more prestigious, in 1937 when Sunderland first won it they fell off in the league title race to concentrate on the cup.

Phillipe, see DD’s thread on anti-semitism below, I like sport and to engage in irrational and tribal behaviour in something that doesn’t really matter that much.


js. 05.04.16 at 1:20 am

A Leicester triumph was verging on narrative determinism

People have been talking about how this is like a movie script, if not “too Hollywood” to actually be a movie script (and leaving aside the fact that a Vardy movie might actually be in the works)—the crazy thing is this could be four different movies. The Ranieri-Mourinho subplot could practically be a movie all in itself (to take one of several possible angles).


On another note. So Leicester are now Premier League champions, and Donald Trump is (all but certainly) the Republican nominee for president. I really think we need a third utterly fucking insane thing to happen in 2016—really need it to be a trifecta to be perfect. (And DT winning the presidency doesn’t count, that’d only replace the second thing, not count as the third thing.)


J-D 05.04.16 at 1:49 am

reason @22

But of course there is a prize! Please check your mailbox.


harry b 05.04.16 at 1:49 am

England getting to the final of the World T20? Ok, not insane enough.

Bernie running as a spoiler, but winning?? (Its ok, I hasten to add, I do not want him to do that!!!)

Oh — Trump making Bernie his running mate? (I do not want that to happen either!)

John McDonnell taking over the leadership of the Labour Party and making a go of it?


js. 05.04.16 at 2:00 am

@harry b — Brexit would do it, but I also don’t want that to happen.

(Or maybe if England win the Euro?)


harry b 05.04.16 at 4:02 am

Right. Only the McDonnell one sounds good to me… Still, we can see what else happens!


harry b 05.04.16 at 4:02 am

Maybe the Pope will unify the left….


Chris Bertram 05.04.16 at 7:01 am

@js, @harry …. Well Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party less than 12 months before Leicester and Trump, so I think you’ve got your 3 things right there unless you fixate on the calendar year.


reason 05.04.16 at 9:21 am

“I like sport and to engage in irrational and tribal behaviour in something that doesn’t really matter that much. ”
Yep exactly. And to let the competition juices flow in something that doesn’t end up doing to much damage – unlike for instance winner-take-all capitalism.


Bartholomew 05.04.16 at 9:27 am

‘There is nothing repetitive and generic about a Mahler symphony.’

Are you kidding? The final movements in particular are bloody repetitive, the fifth, sixth or seventh symphonies for example. (In fact you could say that the whole point of sonata form is repetition).

On topic – the secret of Leicester’s success, according to the Guardian and the Corriere Della Sera, is that Ranieri gave them an extra day off training, so that they were fresher in games and had fewer injuries (very important for a club with a smaller squad). I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s very cheering if it is.


ZM 05.04.16 at 10:12 am

js. and harry b,

do you know the Mountain Goat’s song Cubs In Five, this reminds me of that


Tom Bach 05.04.16 at 11:21 am

The Pope wins the lottery and retires to a Caribbean tax haven.


reason 05.04.16 at 12:53 pm

” is that Ranieri gave them an extra day off training,” …
and they live in Leicester so there was little chance of them getting up to mischief.


js. 05.04.16 at 2:53 pm

CB — Fair enough, we might already have the trifecta!


Underpaid Propagandist 05.04.16 at 3:34 pm

It’s a Swindle.


hix 05.04.16 at 4:34 pm

The 1:5000 odds looked like a typo to me :-). Got to second Kent that they look far too good, even for an outsider team. Someone at the bookmaker or his insurer is probably fearing for his job at the moment.


dave heasman 05.04.16 at 8:19 pm

I don’t think they all do live in Leicester. I recall Ranieri saying one lived in London, another in Manchester.


Chris Bertram 05.05.16 at 6:45 am

The best you can get on an outsider team for next season is 1000/1. West Brom and Bournemouth


chris y 05.05.16 at 2:06 pm

hix @58: 5000-1 was offered by at least one bookie. 12 people took it, nobody for big money. I think the highest payout was £25,000.


Watson Ladd 05.05.16 at 7:26 pm

Don Bradman’s 99.94 career record has a Z-score of 6.48. That’s pretty incredible odds, well over the 5,000-1.


js. 05.06.16 at 2:30 am

CB — Congratulations on today’s win.

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