Leicester City is on the brink of completing the most improbable championship season in sports history.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this: Before the start of the Premier League season, the Foxes were 5,000-1 long shots to win the title, according to William Hill, an England-based bookmaker. You know what else had 5,000-1 odds back in July? Elvis being alive.
While the Elvis odds haven't changed, Leicester City is now the clear favorite to win the Premier League with a seven-point lead atop the table with five games left in the season.
How did this happen? Who are the Foxes? Where exactly is Leicester? We've got you covered. Here are 10 things you should know about Leicester City -- and the city of Leicester.
Started from the bottom, now they're here
There are many reasons why Leicester City's rise to the top of Premier League table is so improbable. But paramount among them: The team wasn't even in the Premier League two years ago and was in danger of being relegated back to the Football League Championship, the second-tier league in the English soccer system. Just seven years ago, the Foxes were in Football League One, the third-tier league. The Foxes were dead-last in the Premier League last season for 4 1/2 months between late-November and mid-April, including a 13-game winless streak, which was the longest in the league. They staved off relegation by winning seven of their last nine matches, but no one saw that as a sign of things to come. If anything, most pundits had them fighting off relegation again this season.
Party of five
Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992, only five teams have won the championship: Manchester United (13 times), Chelsea (four), Arsenal (three), Manchester City (two) and Blackburn Rovers (one). From 1999 to 2010, Arsenal and Manchester United finished in the top four in all 11 seasons while Chelsea and Liverpool finished in the top four in eight of those 11 seasons. To say the 20-team league is top heavy would be a massive understatement. Generally, only five teams ever start the season with a real chance to win the league. So the idea that Leicester City, a team that had just been promoted two years ago and was nearly relegation last year, would not only break into that top four but be in position to win the entire league was simply implausible for anyone who followed English football.
Against all odds
Leicester City wasn't just an underdog before the beginning of this season; they were an afterthought. Their odds of winning the championship were on par with many of the infamous novelty bets William Hill is known for. No one really ever expects a novelty bet to pay off, they're just something funny to laugh about over pints at the bar. The odds of the Foxes winning the Premier League at the start of the season were the same as the Yeti or the Loch Ness monster being proven to exist, Christmas being the warmest day of the year in England or Barack Obama playing cricket for England after he left the Oval Office. Of course, they're all in good fun and not based in reality. No one really thinks those things are going to happen. The problem for William Hill is no one let the Foxes in on the joke. In an attempt to cut the losses they'd take if Leicester wins the title, bookmakers have been offering buyouts to the lucky bettors who got in on the 5,000-1 odds. If the Foxes cash in with the title, it's expected to cost English sportsbooks an estimated $14 million in payouts.
Where in the world is Leicester?
Well, first of all, if you're talking about the city and not the football club, Leicester is a city in the East Midlands of England and the county town of Leicestershire. The East Midlands region of England consists of Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Northamtonshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland and most of Lincolnshire. If none of that makes much sense to you, it's a 100-mile drive north on the M1 motorway if you're in London, or you could hop on the East Midlands Train from London and get there in a little over an hour. Leicester has a population of about 330,000, which would put it on par with Corpus Christi, Texas, or Riverside, California. Leicester, which was known for its hosiery factories in the 19th century, was a finalist for the UK City of Culture Award in 2013 but lost to Kingston upon Hull.
A Shakespearean re-birth
Some have attributed Leicester City's resurrection to the fact that King Richard III is finally resting in peace more than 500 years after his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field. The whereabouts of the monarch's remains remained a mystery until September 2012, when they were discovered underneath a parking lot by archeologists from the University of Leicester. After anthropological and genetic testing confirmed his identity, the next step was giving Richard a proper, albeit belated, sendoff. The remains of the last English king killed in battle were reinterred at the Leicester Cathedral on March 26, 2015. The service, which took place in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and was televised live, included the reading of a poem by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relative of Richard III. Leicester City was in last place in the Premier League at the time and seemed destined for relegation, but following the reburial, the Foxes won seven of their final nine games to hold their spot in the EPL. The magical run has carried over, with Leicester City remaining on top of the table for much of the season. Since the reburial more than a year ago, Leicester City has lost only four matches.
Dynamic duo at a bargain rate
Most of the headlines dedicated to Leicester City's storybook season have been dedicated to Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who have combined for 35 goals and 17 assists. Both of them are in the top five in the league in goals. Vardy and Mahrez were acquired for a combined total of £1.45 million (approximately $2 million). To put that into perspective, the 260th-highest-paid player in the NBA, Festus Ezeli of the Golden State Warriors, makes about that amount this season. Both Vardy and Mahrez were afterthoughts when they joined the team. Vardy joined Leicester City on a £1 million non-league contract in May 2012 after playing for Fleetwood Town in the National League, England's fifth-tier league. Mahrez came to Leicester City in January 2014 from Le Havre of Ligue 2, the second level of French football. The Centre for Sports Studies Football Observatory transfer market calculator projects that the combined transfer market value of Vardy and Mahrez now sits at £49 million, up from £6.6 million last year.
The Italian Job
To say Claudio Ranieri wasn't warmly received when he was named Leicester City's manager last July would be an understatement. Former Leicester City great and current broadcaster Gary Lineker took to Twitter after the hiring and wrote to his 4 million followers: "Claudio Ranieri? Really?" He later added, "Claudio Ranieri is clearly an experienced coach, but this is an uninspired choice." Lineker even pined for the team to bring back Nigel Pearson for a third term. Many in and around Leicester agreed with Lineker. Ranieri hadn't been in the Premier League since 2004, when he was fired after a four-year stretch with Chelsea. Back then, some journalists called him "Clownio" and labeled him "The Tinkerman" because of his penchant for constantly changing lineups. He had seven jobs between Chelsea and Leicester, the last a short stint as manager of the Greece national team that ended with an embarrassing loss to the Faroe Islands in November 2014. But the 64-year old Italian, known for his affable personality, proved to be the perfect fit for Leicester City. He not only believed in the players on the field but brought them together off it. He promised them pizzas if they posted a clean sheet against Crystal Palace in October after the team had allowed at least one goal in their first 11 games of the season. After the Foxes shut out Crystal Palace, Ranieri took them to Peter Pizzeria in Leicester City Square, where they made their own pies. "You have to work for everything," he told them. The Foxes have posted 13 clean sheets since the pizza party and are on the verge of having an even bigger party.
Must be the money
It's no surprise that the five teams which routinely contend for the Premier League crown also own the top five payrolls in the league. This season, Chelsea tops the list at £215.6 million, followed by Manchester United at £203 million, Manchester City at £193.8 million, Arsenal at £192 million, Liverpool at £152 million and Tottenham at £110.5 million. Look at No. 16 on the list, and you'll find Leicester City at £48.2 million. To put that number into perspective in the big-money world of the Premier League, Manchester City paid £69.7 million to acquire Kevin Du Bruyne from Germany and £55.2 million to acquire Raheem Sterling from Liverpool last year. Despite their historic run, Leicester City players aren't in for a massive bonus if they win the title. In fact, their bonus would be the same if they finished in 12th place; some pundits predicted they could if everything broke their way. The team is in line to share a £6.5 million pot for finishing 12th or above under terms agreed to last year.
Leicester City is owned by Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a Thai billionaire businessman and the founder and CEO of King Power Duty Free, Thailand's leading duty-free shop. Srivaddhanaprabha bought the team in August 2010 and subsequently took the club on a tour of Thailand, culminating in a friendly match against the Thai national team. Leicester City plays its home games at the 32,000-seat King Power Stadium, and the logo of the team owner's company is emblazoned on the team's jerseys. The team's sponsors also include the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Air Asia and Singha, a popular Thai beer. Because of these connections to Thailand, Leicester City has become Thailand's de facto soccer team, replacing traditional powers Manchester United and Arsenal.
The New York Foxes are perhaps the best-known Leicester City fan club in the United States. In fact, the club was the only one of its kind when it was established in 2011, when the Foxes were still three years away from being in the Premier League. When the group had a watch party at the start of this season, only two supporters showed up: Jason Becker, a 33-year-old employee benefits consultant from New York City, and his twin brother, Jordan. Jason and Jordan became fans of the Foxes in 1999 because U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller was on the team. They founded the New York Foxes five years ago to watch games with other fans, even if no one else would join them on most match days. "We almost started it as a little bit of a gag," Jason said. "And it has just taken off this year. I mean, we'd have some games where only one person showed up if my brother or I couldn't make it. Now we have well over 20 people coming to watch games."