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Why do some of us hate Leicester City winning the Premiership?

Posted 8th June 2015

With the dust of Leicester City's Premiership win now beginning to settle, it would appear that people's take on this fairytale fall into two broad categories. On the one hand there are those who see it as just that, a fairytale, to be celebrated as an example of an underdog's success against all the odds and the financial clout of the big teams. In Britain, at least, most of us love an underdog. On the other hand, however, there are those who see consider such a view to be the sole preserve of the fair-weather football fan. These people, it is argued, are not real football fans at all.

Personally speaking I have some sympathy for both positions, regardless of their relative merits. However, in this article, I instead intend to explore just why it might be that some of us really took a dislike to a club like Leicester City winning the Premiership, regardless of whether we're justified in doing so.

A traditional explanation might criticise Leicester City for the brand of football they play. Making use of the level of talent at his disposal, and in particular a couple of quick men, manager Claudio Ranieri evidently opted from the start of the season to let oppositions have most of the ball, allowing their defences to push up the field. Their mistakes would then be capitalised on by fast breaking and long balls into the spaces left behind. Leicester's possession and passing stats give credence to this idea. Those of us who prefer the tiki-taka play of Barcelona or the fast flowing attack-attack-attack of Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United probably don't have much time for this park the bus/counterattacking style. Another explanation might recognise a small pocket of north London as the source of most of the hyperbolic abuse directed at Leicester City. Tottenham Hotspur had their highest ever Premiership finish and until a couple of weeks before the end of the season could genuinely have won the title themselves. Arsenal, perennial underachievers in term of the league, probably recognised 2015/16 as the one opportunity in many years to top the table, with all other big clubs failing so spectacularly by their usual standards. But I think there is more to it than just how teams play the game or a little bit of jealous rivalry. Fans of the north London clubs, after all, aren't the only ones expressing this view.

A quick search on Google for why some people hate Leicester City winning the Premiership reveals the following quotes:

  • "We seemed to have refused to acknowledge how much luck has played a part in Leicester's recent rise. Just once, I'd like to hear a single pundit break the party line and admit luck as a factor."
  • "I really, truly, honestly loath Leicester. Why? Because they will be the first ever team to win the league through sheer luck. Luck, and not skill."
  • "Are Leicester really 'refreshing'? Nope, they're lucky. Yes, they have the most points, most wins, fewest defeats and joint highest total of goals scored but they've also had miraculous luck when it comes to injuries (or the lack of them)."

I've highlighted what I think is the key word here. In short, some dislike Leicester City's achievement simply because they perceive them as having been lucky, rather than deserving of success. Whatever one's viewpoint is about how lucky Leicester City really were to win the Premier League, it is undeniable that some fortune was shining on the club during 2015/16, including not just the relatively few number of injuries they suffered but also the number of penalties awarded to them, the relatively few number of games they had to play (on account of early exits from both domestic cups), the failure of other bigger clubs to perform and for some, even the refereeing decisions. The interesting question, however, is what is it about luck that some find so distasteful, particularly in the context of a contest like the Premier League?

In my new book, Squares and Sharps, Suckers and Sharks: The Science, Psychology and Philosophy of Gambling, I have devoted a chapter exploring the moral condemnation of gambling behaviour. Despite legalisation and deregulation of the industry over the past couple of generations, betting and gambling are still viewed by many as possessing something of a deviant nature. I have argued that historically, much of this criticism originates from the idea that seeking success at the expense of another's failure through appeals to chance amounts to irrationality at best and immorality at worst. Traditionally, such criticism and condemnation has come from religious quarters, being as they are committed to the idea of Divine determinism — things do, and should, happen for a reason (i.e. God). But arguably, even those of a more agnostic or atheistic predisposition possess a deep-rooted craving for certainty and control that have evolutionary origins going back millions of years. Fundamentally, human beings are primed to find and interpret patterns even when none actually exist. Merely the illusion of control over destiny and the subjugation of chance confer psychological benefits associated with relief of stresses that manifest themselves neurochemically through cortisol. Fundamentally, we don't much like luck; paradoxically our desire to gamble is actually more of an attempt to subdue her.

Seen in is this way, it becomes clear why some dislike Leicester City's success, perceived as it is coming at the expense of other teams less fortunate but more deserving (in terms of the quality of players they possess, the money they spend and even the time they've had to wait since previous glories). Given our craving for causality and explanations for why things happen, the idea that another team can overtake our own in the pecking order of achievements simply by virtue of chance can frequently be perceived as emotionally dissonant or disagreeable. Or to put it more simply, Leicester City winning the League may be viewed as just being unfair.

Squares and Sharps, Suckers and Sharks: The Science, Psychology and Philosophy of Gambling is available from:
Amazon | Google | Waterstones | High Stakes.