Long before Leicester city there was another under-appreciated Midlands football team that defied the odds and the game's heavyweights to come out on top. Nottingham Forest’s achievement is often regarded as even greater than that of the Foxes. Not only did the 'Miracle Men' win the first division in 1978, the season immediately after being promoted, but they went on to win the European Cup – two years in a row. And it was all done on a budget so small that the club had to organise cheese and wine evenings simply to raise money to keep the finances ticking over. But then, when you've got the irrepressible and irreplaceable Brian Clough providing the motivational team talks, anything is possible.
In 1988, Liverpool were in their pomp, the team packed with star names and soon-to-be-legends like Alan Hansen, John Barnes and Peter Beardsley. For over a decade they had dominated English and European football. In contrast, not much more than a decade earlier, Wimbledon had been playing non-league football. So it was no surprise when, as they emerged to the Wembley roar on cup final day, the south Londoners weren't given a hope of lifting the famous old trophy. Yet it was the 'Crazy Gang' who would prevail. The goal that did it was a glancing header from Lawrie Sanchez which looped over Bruce Grobelaar. Meanwhile, in the other goal, Dave Beasant made a penalty save from John Aldridge and several decisive blocks, his heroics emblematic of the spirit of the whole team, a spirit that would carry them to a most unexpected triumph.
Manchester United are far from outsiders now, but their reputation as one of the greats was built on how they overcame terrible tragedy. In 1958 a talented young United side was destroyed in a Munich plane crash during which eight players lost their lives. Their manager, Matt Busby, was read the last rites in his hospital bed, yet he survived along with Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes. Busby set to work rebuilding, and ten years later they became the first English football club to win the European Cup, thrashing Benfica 4-1 at Wembley, Charlton scoring a brace. It was a comeback that would become part of the club’s mythology, turning them into one of the world’s greatest football teams.
- When Muhammad Ali came to fight George Foreman in Zaire in what became known as the ‘rumble in the jungle’, no one gave him a chance. He'd already lost to Joe Fraiser and Ken Norton in an attempt to win back the title he'd been stripped of, and Foreman had gone on to dispatch both of those men in a mere two rounds. What's more, at 32 Ali was seen as over the hill in comparison to the 25-year-old Foreman, who packed the most devastating punch in the game. Yet Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics and incredible self-belief saw the self-proclaimed ‘greatest’ prove that's exactly what he was, knocking out Foreman in the eighth round. The victory sent shockwaves around the world and cemented Ali's reputation as a boxing legend.
In 2004, the Euros took place in Portugal, and the hosts were among the favourites to win the tournament, boasting a young prodigy in Cristiano Ronaldo and world-class players like Rui Costa and Nino Gomes. And if it wasn't to be the Portuguese then it was bound to be one of the usual suspects like Germany, Italy or France. But Greece? The odds were 150-1, they didn't have a star name in their squad and they were, well, Greece. Yet through grit, luck and some admittedly negative defensive tactics, they made it through to the final against the host nation, coming out 1-0 winners thanks to an Angelos Charisteas goal. Popular they weren't, but that doesn't change the fact that this was one of most incredible victories ever on the international stage. And speaking of Greece, a quick mention to Northern Ireland for a sporting outsider – by beating the aforementioned 2004 champions last year, Michael O'Neill’s side qualified for their first major tournament in 30 years.
It was no surprise when a 17-year-old German tennis player entered the 1985 Wimbledon championship as an unseeded rank outsider. Sure, he was a talented kid, and he had raised a few eyebrows winning the warm up tournament at Queens. But he remained one to watch in the future. Little did people know that the future was a mere two weeks away. With John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors losing in the quarter and semi-finals respectively, and Ivan Lendl already out in the fourth round, Becker met Kevin Curren in the final. Becker’s powerful serve and acrobatic movement around the court set the final alight and helped him overcome the American in four sets. Not only was he the youngest ever winner of the tournament, he was also the first German to win it. Becker would go on to win Wimbledon twice more and amass six grand slams in all.
Denmark didn’t even qualify for the tournament in 1992, ending the group stage as runners-up to Yugoslavia. But with war in the Balkans, Yugoslavia weren’t able to attend the finals in Sweden, so 10 days before the start of the tournament Denmark were told they were in. Despite a lack of preparation, the Danes soon set about giant slaying, beating France in the group stage, the Netherlands in the semi-final and then Germany 2-0 in the final. Heroes included their keeper, Peter Schmeichel, midfield maestro Brian Laudrup and striker Henrik Larsen.
Verona is the location for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but this northern Italian city knows a thing or two about footballing romance as well. Of all the fans in Europe to hear about Leicester’s 2016 triumph, its Verona’s who would have gone misty-eyed, remembering their own improbable victory 30 years earlier. A few years before winning the Scudetto, Hellas Verona had been plying their trade in Serie B, but with legendary manager Osvaldo Bagnoli playing an attacking style of football in contrast to the traditional ‘catenaccio’ of most Italian clubs, they overcame all the odds. What’s more, they won at a time when the Italian league was considered to be the best in Europe.
Dubbed ‘the miracle on ice’, the coldness of the rink was echoed in the coldness that existed between the two nations at the time, making this a grudge match on a superpower scale. Although it was meant to be an amateur contest, the Russians were all essentially pro-hockey players, regarded as legends in the sport, having won the gold medal in six of the seven previous Olympics. In contrast, the Americans really were amateurs, made up of mostly college players. Inevitably, the Russian bear was expected to run amok. Yet in an epic encounter, the Americans ran out 4-3 winners, the victory voted the greatest sporting moment of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated.
And so we come to Leicester City, the latest in a list of outsiders who defied all the odds – in this case an absurd 5000-1 – to seal their place in history. The debate will continue as to whether this is the greatest underdog victory of all time, but there is no doubt that the Foxes’ success in the face of the Premier League’s Goliaths ranks among the most remarkable stories in any sport. It showed the world that money isn’t everything and that with self-belief, togetherness and a never-say-die attitude, you’re always in with a chance. It might be decades before we see such an event again, but who knows – perhaps Leicester’s win marks the start of a new era of surprises in the game. And the odds on Leicester retaining their title? A modest 25-1.