In his three decades in Leicester, Keith Vaz has never seen anything quite like this. There was pandemonium on the city’s streets when India won the 2011 cricket World Cup. But the euphoria that has gripped the East Midlands right now is something unique. “The entire city is painted blue. As a Labour MP, my colour is red but even I am wearing blue. This goes beyond political or any kind of affiliation for that matter,” the Indian-origin British MP says, referring to Leicester City’s club colours.
On Sunday, the football club will get its first chance to script arguably the biggest-ever shock in English sport — when it takes on the once-mighty Manchester United. In a normal season, this fixture would not even merit a mention. But this isn’t a normal season. And Sunday’s isn’t a normal match. A win for Leicester will mean they will be crowned English Premier League champions. Yes, you read that right.
Leicester are just three points away from the title. That is assuming second-placed Tottenham Hotspur — another surprise contender — win all their remaining games. Even if they don’t beat United on Sunday, Leicester will have two more chances, at home to Everton next weekend, and against defending champions Chelsea.
It’s an underdog story that would have David vs Goliath pale in comparison. At the start of the season, most would have thought the odds on finding alien life on earth in the next three years were better than Leicester City winning the title. The bookmakers placed their chances at 5,000-1. Martin Davies, a hair salon owner in Birmingham City Centre, staked £11 on Leicester winning the title — a “joke bet”. If the Foxes beat Manchester United, the life-long Leicester fan will pocket an astonishing £72,000.
It’ll be fitting if they manage to pull off the unthinkable at Old Trafford, a venue often referred to as the “Theatre of Dreams”. For, this season has been just that — a dream. For the club, its players, manager and the fans, who have suffered the team’s mediocrity. Leicester weren’t even the most followed team in their own city — that honour lay with the Leicester Tigers rugby team, followed closely by the county cricket side Leicestershire.
Nothing really explains how this team, so close to being relegated to second division last year, is on the verge of winning what is commercially the world’s biggest football league. Superstitious fans thank a late king for it. Richard III’s bones were discovered in a city’s parking lot in 2012, more than five centuries after he was killed. After his reburial in March 2015, Leicester started winning. And they’ve been unstoppable.
Their rivals, the pundits, and even the fans waited for a slip-up. Gary Lineker, the club’s most celebrated player who is now a television pundit, said on air he would do an entire show in only his undies if the club won the league. Titles, they believed, were meant for big clubs. The Chelseas and Manchester Uniteds. Not a ragtag bunch of players who no one knew until a few months back.
Their stunning season has been causing seismic waves, literally. In February, Leicester fans celebrating a last-minute winner against Norwich City created a 0.3 magnitude earthquake. It’s named the ‘Vardy Quake’, after the team’s top scorer Jamie Vardy, a former factory worker.
It’d be unfair to call Vardy the sole hero of their campaign, though. In the obscenely rich world of club football, Leicester have dared to defy the established and accepted trend. Last season’s champions Chelsea splurged close to £ 300 million on assembling their squad. Leicester spent just £ 50 million approximately.
The fans fumed when the club spent £ 400,000 on little-known Algerian Riyad Mahrez in 2014. The 25-year-old was last week named as the league’s best player. Their midfielder Danny Drinkwater spent 13 years at Manchester United, including his youth days, but was not selected for even one game. On Sunday, he has a chance to win the title against the club that rejected him mercilessly. Leicester City manager, the Italian Claudio Ranieri, got sacked from his last job with Greece after only four matches. A lot of people will be hoping for some poetic justice now.
With a Thai owner, an Italian coach, an Irish chief executive and players from all over the world, the diverse nature of the team mirrors Leicester’s multicultural make up. The East Midlands city is a melting pot of nationalities, so much so that white Britons are now in a minority. Nearly 37 per cent of Leicester’s population is Asian, a majority of them Indian.
For the Asians, cricket is the main sport, and not many are into football. A few who do follow the sport, support bigger clubs who win more regularly and are internationally renowned. “A majority of Asian football fans don’t follow their local club. Many follow the traditional big names, Manchester United, Liverpool, rather than the Leicester Citys of this world. Maybe it’s because they are big international names who get the majority of media coverage, and prime time slots in live programming. You won’t see many Asian faces at grounds around the country,” says Shamir Masri, a sports journalist based in the Midlands.
But that is changing, according to Pradip Dullabh, chairman of the Leicester Bharat Football Club. “In the last few weeks, you saw a lot of blue T-shirts. People have put Leicester City flags outside their houses, they’re wearing scarves… You can feel it’s starting to change,” he says.
Recently, the imam of a local mosque was seen sporting Leicester’s blue jersey, and in mid-April, the tabloid Mirror reported that Abdul Giash, owner of an Indian restaurant, had decided to serve free curries to 1,000 season ticket holders of the club.
The players, too, have blended in with the community. Vaz says it’s common to spot the likes of Mahrez at a local mosque every Friday, while Ranieri dropped in at the Christmas tree at the city centre to celebrate with the locals.
“The city is experiencing emotions such as I have never seen before. There is a belief that miracles do happen,” Vaz says.
For many, it’ll be an accomplishment beyond miracle. On Friday, Ranieri called on his players to finish off the season “Hollywood style”. But even Hollywood could not have scripted such a tale.