England’s rich have had 50 years to digest the Beatles’ message that money can’t buy them love. But the Gulf sheikhs, the Russian oligarchs, and U.S. private equity wizards who own the bulk of Britain’s top soccer teams are now having to learn another bitter lesson: It can’t even buy you success.
The clear leaders of the English Premier League as the season enters its final leg aren’t either of the mighty Manchester clubs, United and City (annual revenue: $568 million and $507 million, respectively, according to Deloitte), nor defending champion Chelsea ($460 million), nor Arsenal ($477 million), but the decidedly provincial minnows of Leicester City, which brought in a comparatively paltry $150 million last year.
To get an idea of how unlikely its rise is, consider: The Leicester team that beat Chelsea 2–1 in December cost $33 million in player transfer fees to assemble. Chelsea, by contrast, spent $311 million on transfer fees. The overall wage bills are just as divergent (see graphic). When Leicester played Manchester City the following week, eight of the visitors’ players had a hiring fee that was more than the entire Leicester team’s put together.
How did this happen? Leicester’s recruitment policy has been both lucky and good. Some credit the extreme fitness regimen that includes cryotherapy (exposing players to superlow temperatures) after games. But most of all, the team has been just that: a team, with a rare spirit and cohesion forged in a nerve-shredding battle last year against relegation to the minor leagues, and nurtured and focused this year by the canny management of Claudio Ranieri, its veteran head coach. Last season, the team spent a record four months at the bottom of the league, before their near-miraculous run of seven wins in the last nine games.
But the streak isn’t just due to talent. England’s richest legacy teams have stumbled lately, often spending too much on the wrong players. And the gap between rich clubs and poor has been narrowing for some time, particularly as the league’s fan base has gone global, leading to an influx of spending from abroad. Leicester’s run owes much to a 2010 takeover by Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a Thai billionaire with an empire of tax-free shops at airports in Thailand.
Still, in a world where sports have become dominated by money and sterile quantitative analysis, Leicester’s unlikely success has made the club the feel-good story of the year. It’s also made the Premier League more unpredictable and more enjoyable—which, paradoxically, may make it more marketable too.
A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Miracle of Leicester City.”