Leicester City Semantics: Upset? Champion?

(With the end of the semester overload, I didn’t get to write this up last week, so here it is this week.)

jamie-vardy3_35303_3551503bLeicester City winning the Premier League is very cool. I think it’s great for soccer/football. It’s great for the EPL. It weakens the claim that money = wins in sports. It is an inspiration to witness the achievement of a team that had to battle up from the lower divisions and then stare down regulation last season. And they were a fun team to watch. Jamie Vardy is a little crazy, but an exciting player to watch play.

And as every commentator from here to Mars has pointed out, the Foxes were 5000 to 1 to win the league at the start of the EPL season. And their championship is being hailed in the media as the greatest upset in sports history. Upset?? Don’t make me go all Inigo Montoya on you all.

It’s an amazing feat. It’s unheralded. It’s a “Cinderella” story even. But “upset”? No.

Leicester were in first place for the last third of the season, and despite a few slips here or there, they’ve pretty much been top of the table since November. They were in the top 5 wire to wire.  By January, the odds of the Foxes winning had come down from 5000 to 1 to 8 to 1 and by February they were one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the league.

I am not sure how a team that is one of the favorites to win becomes the greatest upset of all times.

As in so many things, this turns on what we mean by “upset”. I take an upset to refer to a situation when the unexpected team/player wins; when the team or player that is not supposed to win, that is not favored to win, wins.

This doesn’t seem to apply to Leicester City after January. From that point to the end of the season, Leicester was top of the table and one of the favorites. So they were not unexpected, not the underdog.

Sure, back in August Leicester was not expected to win, they were not supposed to win, they were certainly not favored for anything but regulation. That is part of what makes their championship so amazing and historic. But by January, we knew that Leicester was going to at least challenge for the championship. And by April it was nearly (unless you were a Spurs supporter) a foregone conclusion. So I ‘upset’ doesn’t apply.

Speaking of Championships. I’ve also seen some criticisms of crowning Leicester City a champion without a championship match. Granted this usually comes from quarters less familiar with the structure of European soccer/football, but it is an interesting question. Does a champion need a championship match?

I don’t think so. There is nothing incomplete about a league crowning the league winner as its champion. Playoff systems are exciting and thrilling, but they have their own concerns. (Podcast: The Value of Playoffs and Championships) One major one is that a weaker team can win if it gets lucky, gets hot at the right time, or because it gets an easier bracket.

If a league doesn’t have a well-balanced schedule, then there is a good basis for needing a playoff system/championship game to determine the champion. If there is a team that the eventual champion didn’t play, that raises questions about the legitimacy of the champion. But in the Premier League every team plays every other team home and away. The EPL is a really long round robin tourney, so in many ways a championship match would be superfluous. And European soccer fans hungry for a playoff system get that in Champions league, the FA Cup, and other similar tourneys.

Recap: Upset, no. Champions, yes.




Filed under Achievement, Football, playoffs, soccer

3 responses to “Leicester City Semantics: Upset? Champion?

  1. I like the round robin comparison. I don’t follow EPl as much as I intend to, but find it interesting that they don’t have a structured elimination playoff after the ‘regular’ season. In a way it puts more emphasis on each game throughout the season as if they are all ‘playoff’ games. Relegation too, adds that extra element. Looking at the league this way, appeals to me.

  2. Simon Johnson

    I very much enjoyed this write-up but I think I side with saying that it is indeed an upset that Leicester wound up at the top of the table at the end of the season.

    To be short, I think your definition of “upset” would not allow us to use that term in circumstances where most would say it would be absolutely appropriate.

    As I understand it your claim is that before January (and especially before the season even began) people could rightfully say, “If Leicester wins the Premier League this year it would be a great upset.” However, if they were to say that same thing after January, they would be false since at that point they had a fairly commanding lead in the table and the possibility of them finishing first was more probable than not.

    Applying this logic to a single soccer game (or any other game) would yield counter intuitive results. Say one team is at the top of the table; we’ll call them The Goodies. And the other team at the bottom; they’ll be The Baddies. Before the game starts the odds of The Baddies winning are tremendously low. Someone might remark (correctly, as both you and I think), “It would be an upset if The Baddies won.” Low and behold, by half-time The Baddies have taken a 6-0 lead and don’t show any signs of slowing down. At the end of the game the score is 8-1, Baddies win!

    After the final whistle a Baddies fan yells in joy, “I can’t believe it!! What an upset!” If it is appropriate to apply your logic in this situation (and you very well may say it is not) then what he is saying is false and you could reply by saying (correctly), “No. It is not an upset. Well, not since the end of the first half, anyways.”

    This seems ludicrous to me. I think it is correct to remark after that game is over that it was indeed an upset that The Baddies won the game, just as it was correct to say so before the game started.

    In fact, in almost any game where an underdog team ends up winning there is some point in the game (maybe even just one second before the game ends) where the probability of the underdog winning is very close to 1. At that point in the game everyone would expect them to win; they are no longer the underdogs, so to say. Despite these facts, I think most would agree that even during that last second of a clearly-won game, when the probability of the bad team winning is very very high, it is correct to say it would be/is an upset that they will win/won.

    My position is that whether a victory of a single game or a single season would be considered an “upset” is based solely on the chances of the team winning at the beginning of the game or season, taking no consideration of the chances of said team winning at any later point in the game or season. If before the game or season starts it would be an upset for the underdog to win, then regardless of how the game or season goes, if they do in fact win then they have performed an upset.

    I hold that since at the beginning of the season there was a very low probability of Leicester finishing first it is (still) correct to say that them winning the league was an upset.

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