The Most Unlikely Champions in Football History

Football is full of surprises. It’s one of the reasons why it is universally loved. Throughout its history, fans of the game have seen shock results, cup upsets, unexpected relegations and, on occasion, unlikely champions crowned when no one gave them a chance. Here is a look back at just five times in history where clubs have defied all the odds to be crowned league champions in their country. 

Unlikely Champions in Football History 

Leicester City – 2016

Before the season kicked off, Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City side were priced at 5000-1 to win the Premier League title. The previous season, they had completed one of football’s great escapes; however, very few would have given the Foxes any chance of challenging for one of the greatest prizes in football.

City fans would have been happy to have stayed clear of the relegation zone, but what they witnessed would surprise even the most optimistic Foxes supporter and shock football fans around the world. What unfolded throughout the 2015/16 season would go down as one of the greatest sporting stories of all time.

Kasper Schmeichel in goal, Jonny Evans in defence, N’Golo Kante in midfield and the prolific Jamie Vardy in attack were City’s spine. They were supporter by the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton, Wes Morgan and Danny Drinkwater, amongst many others who also excelled.

It was not as if City stole the title, they were the best team in the division and won the league by ten points. Just three games were lost and following a first half of the season where they sparred with the usual suspects, come January, Leicester stayed on top for the remainder of the season.

Jamie Vardy was the top scorer with 24 league goals. His season also included a record-breaking feat when he scored in 11 consecutive Premier League games. His goals along with performances from others that will live long in the memory secured Leicester’s first title in their history.

Former striker and fan Gary Lineker described the title win as “the biggest sporting shock of my lifetime”. He continued: “I can’t think of anything that surpasses it in sporting history. It is difficult to put over in words. I got emotional. It was hard to breathe. I was a season ticket holder from the age of seven. This is actually impossible.”

Kaiserslautern – 1998

Bundesliga champions in 1991, Kaiserslautern had a rapid fall from grace and were relegated five years later. An instant return to Germany’s top-flight was the beginning of another great sporting story. Much like Leicester City, Kaiserslautern had little to no chance of battling for the title, or so many thought. The unfancied side from south-west Germany were about to embark on a season that would shock the country and football fans around the world.

They began the season by beating reigning champions Bayern Munich 1-0. Even following this excellent start, many thought it was a mere fluke. Otto Rehhagel, who masterminded their return to the Bundesliga and who would guide Greece to their greatest success in 2004, was about to show that he and his team would be no fluke. 33 points from the next available 42 showed Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and the rest that the Die Roten Teufel meant business.

As the season progressed, fans saw more draws than wins, however, just four defeats across the season meant Rehhagel’s team were always in contention. The title was won on the penultimate day of the season after a 4-0 win against Wolfsburg while Bayern only drew. The city, with a population of just 80,000, and a team full of spirit, if not stars, deserved their title and their day in the spotlight which has gone done in German football history.

Hellas Verona – 1985

In a Serie A era which included superstars such as Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Zico, the usual suspects of Inter Milan, Juventus, AC Milan and the emerging Napoli were expected to battle it out for the title. Only the most optimistic Verona fan believed they could also challenge. But challenge they did, and in the process achieved the impossible.

Osvaldo Bagnoli, a no-nonsense coach who played for the club, had steadily been improving his team, and now was his time to be in the spotlight and upset the odds. Bagnoli’s side would lose just two games on their way to a shock Scudetto. Verona were organised and played quick and exciting counter-attacking football. By Christmas, Verona were top of the table, having remained unbeaten and had seen off the likes of Juventus and Diego Maradona’s Napoli.

The second half of the season continued with Verona defying the odds to stay at the top when others were struggling. Their first-ever top-flight title was won on the penultimate weekend of the season with the team lifting the trophy in front of their own fans the following week. It was not only Verona’s first Scudetto, but it was also their last, and 36 years on is still regarded as the biggest shock in Italian football.

Montpellier – 2012

Unfancied Montpellier defied all the odds and overcame the upcoming Ligue 1 powerhouse that is Paris Saint-Germain. PSG, under Carlo Ancelotti (appointed halfway through the season) and several expensive new signings, were expected to walk away with the title with relative ease. However, they, along with the majority of France and the world, didn’t expect the team with a modest budget to top the table come the season’s end.

Montpellier’s attack was lead by future World Cup winner Olivier Giroud, who would top the scoring charts with 21 goals. At the beginning of the season, a title win was the furthest from anyone associated with the club. The previous season they had finished just three points above the relegation zone. Manager Rene Girard knew he had goals in his team but needed to make his team difficult to beat. He succeeded. 11 of his teams’ victories en route to their greatest ever seasons was by a 1-0 scoreline.

La Paillade and PSG would battle it out at the top of the table for the entire season with neither gaining more than a three-point lead at any stage. With this being the case, the title was decided on the final game of the season. PSG could only draw, meaning a win for Montpellier away at Auxerre would mean they would win the most unlikely of titles. In a bad-tempered game on and off the pitch, Girard’s men secured a dramatic 2-1 victory to secure the title.

Nottingham Forest – 1978

Following promotion to the top flight in 1977, few expected Forest to challenge for the title. However, they had Brian Clough as manager. With Clough in charge and Peter Taylor alongside him as his assistant, anything was possible with nothing proving impossible. The pair had worked miracles at Derby County and they replicated that success, and then some at Forest. In Clough’s first six years, Forest would win the First Division title, two League Cups and two European Cups. It was the title in their first season back in England’s top-flight that seemed the least likely.

The previous season, Forest had gained promotion, but only just. They had finished in third place just one point ahead of fourth-placed Bolton Wanderers and many tipped them to struggle. Clough, Taylor and Co had other ideas. Just three defeats in the opening 16 games and they would lose just once more during the rest of the season and that was in the FA Cup. During the season, Clough broke the record fee for a goalkeeper when he signed England international Peter Shilton. Forest would go on to concede just 24 goals in 42 league games on their way to winning an unexpected title by seven points.

Main Photo

Embed from Getty Images