Sporting Romance

Leicester City A Football Fantasy

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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A mid-sized English club shakes up and cheers up the football world

Being a Leicester City fan has rarely been great. The Foxes, my local team as a boy, probably my family’s team since the club was founded in 1890, have never won the football league or the FA Cup and rarely threatened to stay in the top tier of English football for long. Leicester is the archetypal yo-yo club, too big for the lower divisions, too small to keep pace with the big boys of London and Manchester for long. Its fate is therefore to oscillate endlessly between glory, often defined as a nail-biting survival act, and the defeats that send it crashing back down for another spell of lower-league tedium and obscurity.

The club has been relegated seven times in my lifetime. Its combined total of 22 promotions or relegations is the fourth highest of any English club. No wonder Leicester folk, like all Midlanders, are a phlegmatic breed. “Ow’s City? Going down are we?” is one of their standard greetings, often answered in the affirmative. The football club is not glamorous. Neither is Leicester. Once well-heeled—its hosiery industry paid for a fine Victorian centre and, in a last gasp for factory labour, drew thousands of Gujaratis from East Africa in the 1960s and 1970s— the place is now deindustrialised and in many parts moribund.

The sock factories on Frog Island have been moth-balled. In their place are a couple of decent universities, a lot of small traders and, belatedly, some technology start-ups, often founded by members of the large, thriving Asian diaspora that the factories left behind. Leicester is Britain’s first city with a non-White majority. It is its most singular fact; Diwali is celebrated in Leicester as prominently, and colourfully, as Christmas. At election-time it can also feel weirdly Indian. Ahead of last year’s general election, Abhishek Bachchan visited the city to campaign for a local MP, Keith Vaz. But Leicester’s Indians do not bother, by and large, with the football team; and apart from their presence and its excellent rugby club, Leicester is a rather nondescript place. Until the bones of Richard III, a 15th century English monarch, were recently dug up in a Leicester car park, its best-known historical figure was arguably an early 19th century jailer, called Daniel Lambert, who was considered to be the fattest man in England. He is still well-liked locally; his vast stockings and sail- like shirts are among the city’s main attractions.

There have been good moments for the Foxes, of course. Under the effervescent management of Martin O’Neill, they won the League Cup in 1997—the club’s first trophy for over a quarter of a century—then repeated the trick in 2000. Leicester has always produced the odd outstanding player, too—stars of City, England and, soon enough, bigger clubs, like Peter Shilton, Gary Lineker and Emile Heskey, in whose post-City exploits Foxes’ fans take the slightly-wounded pride of an outgrown friend. Lineker, whose parents ran a fruit and vegetable stall on Leicester market even as he was scoring for Barcelona and England, is particularly revered. But Heskey is well-liked, too. He is remembered as the gangly 17-year-old who could speed up every game he played, so impetuous, skilful and quick was he. The fact that he later developed into a more stolid player, widely ridiculed for his feats of non-scoring forward play, seemed to many Leicester fans baffling and affronting. It seemed like a verdict on Leicester’s idea of flair.

There have been bad times for the club, too—some even worse than the relegation that Leicester fans always expect. In 2002, the Foxes were relegated then, saddled with £30 million of debt, went bust. The club’s existence was in doubt; it was bailed out by a consortium of fans, led by Lineker, which was a test even for its fans’ high tolerance of adversity.

This ignominy caused little anxiety outside the city, though, because there are few Foxes fans out there. The vast surge in global attention to English football, on the back of a television- based boom that, incidentally, is the template for Indian cricket’s enrichment, has largely passed by lower-ranking teams like Leicester. Millions of English people support them as their local team, the side their father followed: witness the banners, for Chesterfield United or Leyton Town, that English cricket fans take with them to foreign grounds. The vast majority of English football fans, who are now Asian, meanwhile scarcely know of these clubs’ existence. They are the hidden lumber of the world’s most over-exposed domestic sport. Wandering many countries as a foreign correspondent, in Africa, Asia and the Americas, I have rarely been far from a Manchester United or an Arsenal shirt. But I have only once glimpsed a Leicester shirt, in a Kenyan slum, and it had clearly made it there in a bale of charity-shop cast-offs. There are probably not even many Indian or African lovers of English football who could pronounce the club’s name. Lechester, is it? Or Lesester?

So it is, to put it mildly, a bit of a turn-up that on Saturday, after the Foxes defeated Manchester City, 3-1, on 6 February, to stretch their lead in the premiership rivals to five points, ‘Leicester City’ was briefly the biggest trending topic in the world on Twitter. Not even Daniel Lambert could have managed that. To Leicester fans, their team’s current success is almost incredible. Imagine if some little-known Telugu production won an Oscar? Or if Google announced it was moving its global headquarters to Jalandhar? Leicester’s current assault on the English Premier League is no more likely.

Supporting a local football side, such as the Foxes, is a statement of cultural belonging, to family and place; it is a tribute to the inertia and depth of aged British sporting affections. But it is no augury of success. It is almost the opposite. The very fact that clinging to a place in the Premier League has been, traditionally, the best the Foxes could hope for, has made all those other, cultural and commiserative, reasons for following the team seem especially important. To support a club like Leicester is therefore a form of self-knowledge, as well as of self- denial. Foxes fans might dream of glory, but they well know that mid-table anonymity is about what their city deserves. It is a mid-table sort of a place, for which Leicester people feel a weary, unenthusiastic but sentimental affection, and their yo- yoing football side reflects that terminally mid-ranking status. Following a team like Leicester is, for all these reasons, and a few more (but I will stop this here), a weirdly satisfying act of sporting devotion. It is just unfortunate it usually requires watching so much bad football.

Not now, though, not this season, given the strange, beautiful saga now running at Leicester’s King Power Stadium. The story unfolding there is of improbable victories, against the biggest and the richest, often won with spectacular speed and grace. I cannot think there has been a more thrilling, emotionally satisfying, drama in English domestic football—there have not been many better than this in any sport, anywhere. Leicester, a team of bargain-basement players, of unknown youngsters and hand-me-downs from richer clubs, started the season at 5,000- to-1 outsiders to win the Premier League. That was not outlandish; William Hill, the bookie offering those odds, took only 12 bets at them. Now, six months later, the Foxes are 2-to-1 favourites to win the league. If they do, the bookies will lose £10 million— including £25,000 to a 39-year-old Leicester carpenter, Leigh Herbert, who put a fiver on the Foxes, only because, he said, he was drunk at the time. The panicked bookie recently offered him £3,200 to call off his drunken bet. He refused:“I’m going to hang in there, I believe in fairytales.”

To appreciate how fantastical this is, consider what the bookies saw when they set those longshot odds. Last season, Leicester yo-yoed up into the premier league after a decade in the league’s lower reaches. After a promising start, they collapsed, as callow newcomers to the premier league often do. Between November and April, the Foxes spent four and a half months stuck on the bottom of the table, barely able to score a goal, let alone win a game. But then suddenly, finding confidence and verve from who knew where, they started winning. They won seven of their last nine games, which constituted the best form in the league, and in the end avoided relegation with ease. Impressed, football scribes wrote this up as the Premier League’s ‘Greatest Escape’—then many predicted that, this season, there would be no such reprieve. They had ground to think that.

On a ‘good will’ summer tour of Thailand, where the consortium of businessmen which now owns the club resides, three of the club’s players were caught in a sex scandal. One was the son of the club’s admired manager, Nigel Pearson. The players and manager were sacked. The club’s best player, the Argentinian veteran Esteban Cambiasso, then left. Pearson was replaced as manager by the Italian Claudio Ranieri, who seemed to have been kicking around football management for ever, with no great success for years. He had been sacked from his previous job, as manager of Greece, after four games—in the last of which Greece lost to a team of semi-professionals from the Faroe Islands. Only a couple of players were added to the squad, none of whom was particularly eye-catching or expensive; which in modern football is an almost assured recipe for failure.

As an almost infallible rule, the size of a football club’s wage- bill predicts how well it will do. It is crushingly dull. But the best footballers have become so brilliantly honed, so systematically exercised, drilled and dried out, the pitches they play on are so invariably excellent, that there are few other variables left in the game. On level Premier League playing-fields, the richest clubs hoover up the best players, because they can pay the highest salaries, and therefore, by and large, they win. Poorer teams like Leicester must hope to scrape by with second-best, if they are lucky; they cannot expect to win. Until four years ago, the Foxes’ main striker, Jamie Vardy, was playing football semi-professionally while working in a factory. He started the current season earning £20,000 a week; a handsome wage, but rather less than the £300,000 Wayne Rooney makes.

It is this deadening predictability, wrought by thorough professionalism, that makes the Foxes success so marvellous. Vardy has been a once-in- a-sporting-lifetime surprise. Whippet-quick, he has grown in impudent confidence with every win; in November he became the first player to score in 11 consecutive Premier League games. His main accomplice, Riyad Mahrez, bought from the French side club Le Havre for only a bit more than Rooney’s weekly wage, has been probably the best player in England this season. And in their slip-stream a bunch of has-beens, nearlies and never-ought-to-have-beens have emerged as extraordinary players; the captain, Wes Morgan, who was so fat when he started his professional career with Nottingham Forest that he did nothing in his first season but lose weight, is currently one of the best central defenders in the League. Ranieri is firmly established as England’s favourite uncle; his every modest proposal, that everyone should relax, not expect too much, receives rapturously approving media comment. It is extraordinarily romantic and improbable. No wonder a Hollywood producer has plans to make a film about Jamie Vardy. Nor is it surprising that football fans all around the country have started willing Leicester to go on and win the League. When news of Vardy’s record-breaking goal was announced, packed stadiums across England erupted into spontaneous cheering and applause. Leicester’s run is making all English football fans feel better about their game and themselves.

Can the Foxes now win the League? Clearly, if their form holds, they can. There is no great team to challenge them; Arsenal are awash with fragile genius; Liverpool, a mess; Manchester United’s rich squad represents one of the worst returns on investment since the Iraq war. And if the Foxes do win the English Premier League, all the joy and wonder hitherto at their success will be as chaff to the wind compared to the celebrations to come. It really would be momentous. At a time of growing disaffection among football fans, as soaring ticket prices and the distant celebrities footballers’ vast salaries have made of them, a Leicester triumph would replenish faith in the national game. It would mean truly colossal joy and vindication to back Leicester; it would be a blow for mid- sized, nondescript places everywhere.

Every Saturday morning, I now wake early at my home in Washington, nerves attacking each other, as I imagine the game ahead, imagining, too, what football defeat, when it comes, will feel like. It must come soon, of course, for Leicester is Leicester. But, dear God, I implore, not yet.