English Football's Rising Team
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now to a story of the underdog, one you might not have even heard of. English soccer has been dominated over the past 25 years by just a handful of teams. These teams are Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. And they basically just keep handing the top prize off to one another. No one else has had a chance. However, that could change this year because the current leader of the English Premier league is Leicester City. It is a small club from a small place that has never won the top flight of English football. To talk to us about this surprise turn of events across the pond we have called up Roger Bennett from NBC's soccer program, "Men In Blazers." Hi, Roger.
ROGER BENNETT: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: How did we get here? And don't say, well, this team just won more games. Like, this was a really big surprise, right?
BENNETT: I'm a rational man. I'm a logical man. And the only honest response I can get to what I've witnessed this season is that this is a miracle. It's like watching the Red Sea splitting. It's like seeing water turned into wine.
MARTIN: Are you being serious? Genuinely, it is that surprising?
BENNETT: They have gone from the very bottom of the English Premier League to the very top in the course of 10 months. And Americans need to know that English soccer is not like American sport. There's no draft. There's no salary cap. There's no revenue sharing. There's nothing to create parity. And tiny little Leicester were a hapless do-mess (ph) a doormat 10 months ago. There's a thing in English sport called relegation. It would be like a baseball team being kicked out of Major League Baseball and ending up in Triple-A. Leicester City were in that moon door 10 months ago. They survived a miracle survival. But they never stopped winning. They won, and they won in this season. The bubble hasn't burst. And this ragtag bunch of hapless heroes have come together to destroy all of the big teams. It's like "The Karate Kid," but for real.
MARTIN: (Laughter). What other references can we get into this conversation? Splitting of the Red Sea, "The Karate Kid," I love it. But just tactically speaking, I mean, is it coaching? Is it this guy, Jamie Vardy, who's this big deal on this team?
BENNETT: It is so many things. I mean, it all starts at the beginning of the season with the arrival of a new coach, Claudio Ranieri, a gray-haired Italian whose career was on the slide. And when he came in, English journalists just laughed. But they recruited well. This squad has been put together with the kind of creativity the A-Team showed when they take random mechanical parts in a barn and make an armored personnel carrier. I mean, none of their players, Rachel, have the traditional LinkedIn resumes of champions. Chief amongst them, the gentleman you mentioned, Jamie Vardy, he's a striker with the face of a medieval pike man. Six years ago, he was playing part-time football for tiny Stocksbridge Steels. It's an obscure team.
MARTIN: So he wasn't even a pro.
BENNETT: No, he was making $43 a week. And he was working, to add his income, making medical supplies in a factory. He was playing Single-A-equivalent football. And he ground his way to the big time, began the season, as it should be said, under the cloud of a casual racism scandal. Yet, he survived. And he's now had a league-leading 18 league goals alongside another player, Riyadh Mahrez, an Algerian wizard with the looks of a young Omar Sharif. He was deemed too slight by the big clubs to succeed. But he's got the ball-handling skills of John Wall. And he's had a hand in 24 goals. These are the dirty dozen. Team spirit - in between games, they're allowed to do anything. They go off binge drinking in Copenhagen dressed up as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles together.
MARTIN: Wait, what? Really?
BENNETT: Yeah, their Italian coach was asked by the Italian teams, how did this team become so good? And he said, you know, we've kept it very simple. I let them do anything. I let them eat anything. I let them drink anything. And I let them rest. They play a high-velocity, ruthless, counterattacking football. It's nipple-tingling to watch them.
BENNETT: And traditionally, football is all about possession. It's about total passes. They rank bottom in those statistics. But they're top where it counts, in goals scored and total points.
MARTIN: Do you speak of them with reference? I mean, does it make you happy? This is not your team. You're an Everton guy.
BENNETT: I have to tell you, I believe everything in life will feel better if little Leicester outsmart, out-hustle, out-play the big boys and win. It will mean everything in life is possible.
MARTIN: Roger Bennett. He is the host of NBC's "Men In Blazers." Roger, thanks for talking with us.
BENNETT: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.