Leicester City can win the English Premier League this season. They're two points ahead of both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal with 26 games played. Leicester City. They're the most consistent team in England and have recently beaten Tottenham 1-0, Liverpool 2-0, and Manchester City 3-1. Leicester. City. It's inexplicable.
This is the same team that finished in 14th place last year, six points off safety, their survival only achieved over the last few games of that season. Relegation was a real and expected possibility back then, and they defied it. Common sense then assumed they'd face the same struggles this year. They've not only defied that, they've embarrassed the reasoning behind the suggestion.
So we need to say, aloud, that the Foxes have a real chance at the EPL title. It must be vocalized to sink in. For it to be accepted. To be realized, because a lot of us are struggling with this idea in the most human way possible: it's challenging our mental comfort zones.
What we have learned, accepted and internalized about football is that money wins titles. The more you spend, the more likely you are to lift trophies at the end of the season. And those trophies lead to popularity, which leads to more riches in the form of shirt sales, sponsorship deals, kit deals. Those then lead to more season-end celebrations.
It's why Arsenal are perpetually stuck in the "above-average but not great" purgatory. Why Manchester City could go from noisy neighbors to league winners in the blink of an eye. And why you can generally find the most successful teams in the world on the list of the richest teams in the world. This is the tradition of modern football.
And so like all traditions, we rarely assess its merits. It exists and we exist alongside it. If you're not a fan of those bigger teams, and barring a catastrophic event like Chelsea's implosion, your team's season is a walk along a well-worn path. Each year brings about the discovery of new flowers along the road but the house at the end is the same. The team may move up or down a few spots on the table but never really too much to affect anything substantial.
Unless you're Leicester.
The general feeling reserved for Leicester at the beginning of the season was the same as Southampton the year before: this won't last. If our vision of an orderly world is to believed, it can't possibly continue. Our expectation was that eventually Leicester would come to their senses, leaving the universe to re-balance itself. The distrust of fast starts feeds into the old adage that the league is a marathon, not a sprint. The Foxes exploded out the gates but were due to tire and fall behind. The Top Four regulars were sure to catch up, then out-pace them.
Except they haven't faltered. And in fact, it's the other teams who are floundering as Leicester sets its own frantic pace. They've not only passed the test of endurance but they've also beaten many of their title rivals in direct competition.
This leaves football fans in a peculiar predicament. We love underdog stories; it's almost human nature to cheer for the smaller, less-trained, unorthodox long shot. We love footballers who don't really look the part of an athlete -- Andres Iniesta, Santi Cazorla and Peter Crouch for example -- because underdog stories are inspirational and suit our idealism. We need to believe that anything is possible in order to keep from submitting to the bleak reality around us, even if that optimism is predictably dashed every season. That cycle is familiar and comfortable.
Leicester's success has broken it. For fans of other clubs, the feeling is no longer one of certitude that Leicester will fall back to their rightful place, but of hoping that they don't win the league out of human spite. The spite doesn't arise out of hate for Leicester as a team, but because they challenge our very concept of the underdog.
Deep down under all that hope-mongering, we're all natural cynics. What we love more than the underdog's rise is knowing that their failure is inevitable. Eventually the underdog will be clobbered by the super-athlete with immeasurable resources, broken by the world and order restored to our fragile purview.
This need for that defeat isn't just sadistic -- it reaffirms our intrinsic knowledge of how the world works, who gets ahead and which things are possible. We like to believe that the world is full of possibilities, but we love even more to find out that it's not. Their crushing, dispiriting defeat brings us back to the reassurance of what we know. After all, if anything were truly possible, we'd have to examine why Leicester's fate isn't conceivable for our club, too. Endless possibility is, too, an endless burden.
So we repeat to ourselves that Leicester City won't win because it's illogical: Claudio Ranieri is the perpetual bridesmaid. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez can't possibly keep up this form. The team won't maintain their super-aggressive pressing style as the season comes to an end.
Otherwise our bewilderment might force a reassessment of our basest truth: Is money really the alpha and omega of success in the league?
This has a few implications. Leicester's best performers are players who were plucked from relative obscurity, a move that was possible because the team, lacking money to splash, had to rely on good, deep scouting. Now that the price for those names has grown to ridiculous levels, spending, instead of being an enviable luxury, is just the lazy alternative to thorough scouting.
Winning a title takes a countless number of things being in harmony, but what Leicester have done, and their process for it, aren't exactly new or mind-boggling. They have a plan, which Ranieri has admitted to not over-complicating, and the players execute it as passionately as possible. They run, and they run, and when the other team is beginning to tire, they run even harder.
When they're done, the manager rewards them with ample rest and the freedom to eat whatever they like and as much as their heart desires. As long as they're willing to run just as hard in the next game.
So why is this impossible for anyone else? How can certain teams reason their lack of successes, never mounting a challenge for the top spots, when Leicester have come and done it?
Of course, an exception doesn't make a rule. But this miracle isn't as miraculous as it seems, nor is it particular to Leicester City. It wasn't that long ago that Atlético Madrid performed a similar feat against the even more intimidating duo of Barcelona and Real Madrid. They achieved this after flailing around mid-table since the turn of the century and even taking a gap-year in the second division in 2001-2002. And they've managed to remain as title challengers after their daunting league win -- replacing departing stars with future ones and running their little hearts out in the process. The same can also be said for Dortmund since the Jürgen Klopp era.
Neither of these teams did it as fast as Leicester seems on the verge of doing. But the blueprint is there, and it's not anything earth-shaking. It's just that now, this event is taking place in the league that has based its entire identity on money. Leicester is threatening to expose that central fallacy, and to shake up our core beliefs.
Leicester City could very well be a flash in the pan. A perfect combination of willing and quality players, an understanding and modest manager, and a year in the EPL where the best teams are struggling. The team is sure to be plundered for its stars in the next transfer window and maybe that will be what ends their fairy tale. But for now they have suggested that our accepted truths aren't as engraved as we would like them to be.
Then again, as with most things, what's more likely to happen is that we'll question the known order for a short time before falling back into our comfortable spaces. Traditions are incredibly hard things to break.