World in suspense as Leicester City’s title charge nears final chapter
The Premier League has always had worldwide appeal but instead of Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero taking the spotlight, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez now star in Leicester City’s title challenge as it nears its conclusion over the next few weeks.football Updated: Apr 19, 2016 14:13 IST
The Premier League has always had worldwide appeal but instead of Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero taking the spotlight, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez now star in Leicester City’s title challenge as it nears its conclusion over the next few weeks.
From seven points adrift at the bottom of the table and seemingly relegation certainties a year ago to seven points clear at the top and in sight of their first English League title, Leicester’s turnaround has become one of the most talked-about stories in world sport.
Since joining the Football League in 1894, their best performance was a runners-up spot in the old first division in 1929 and, until this season, their chief claim to footballing fame, apart from three League Cup triumphs, was the unique achievement of reaching four FA Cup finals and losing them all.
The Premier League is watched by audiences measured in the billions across more than 200 countries. Even the United States is no longer immune, with rapidly growing viewing figures and Newsweek magazine giving up three pages to describe Leicester’s quest for the “upset of the century”.
Various global Leicester fan clubs, which for years tootled along quietly with a handful of dedicated members, have suddenly blossomed. Typical are the New York Foxes, founded by twin brothers Jordan and Jason Becker who became Leicester fans in 1998 when American Kasey Keller played in goal for the team.
The club now gathers, along with fans of a host of other clubs, in The Football Factory cellar bar near the Empire State Building to watch the club’s games.
“It used to be just a couple of us but we now connect with ex-pats and folks coming over on holiday and now that the club is raising its profile, more and more people want to be around and watch,” Jason Becker said.
“I mean, how can you miss a game right now - and Leicester is everyone’s second-favourite team now, everyone seems to be pulling for us.”
His confidence did not quite run to backing his team for the title pre-season but he did not miss out entirely.
“Sadly, I didn’t get the 5,000 to 1 odds that other people had early in the season, but 7-1 is not so bad,” he said of a bet he laid when most people were still predicting the bubble would burst.
Thailand, home of club owner and duty-free magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, has taken Leicester to heart too and Bangkok airport now greets arriving passengers with adverts featuring Leicester players.
Market stalls in the Thai capital selling unofficial replica shirts have begun to carry the blue of Leicester alongside their staples of Manchester United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Japan has adopted Leicester’s Shinji Okazaki as its new Premier League hero. A Reuters reporter in Tokyo last week was asked by his taxi driver the usual “Where are you from?” opening gambit and when he replied “England” the driver immediately asked the question on everyone’s lips: “What about Leicester? Can they win it?”
In France, where all-conquering Paris St Germain wrapped up the dullest league in Europe weeks ago, fans and media in search of drama have switched their interest across the channel.
Their focus is on Mahrez and N’Golo Kante as they wonder how the duo bumped along barely raising a ripple for years at Le Harve and Caen but now, after eight months in England, the bargain-buys-turned-internationals are vying for the Footballer of the Year award
Spanish fans brought up on decades of dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona are also revelling in the little-man nature of Leicester, and veteran goalkeeper Iker Casillas, now playing in Portugal, captured the mood last week when he tweeted: “Everyone is passionate about their club, but everyone feels like Leicester are one of our own. INCREDIBLE!”
Much of Italy’s interest is centred on manager Claudio Ranieri, their much-travelled and much-loved compatriot who has belied his reputation by achieving success this season with one of the most settled line-ups of the Premier League era. Bar-room nostalgia in his native Rome looks back to 1985 when Verona came out of nowhere to claim their first, only and similarly unlikely league title.
In South America, the trend also seems to draw comparisons with local against-the-odds successes and in Brazil, where as many as five Premier League games are screened live each weekend, everybody is talking about Leicester.
Chapecoense, a small club who were promoted in 2013 and have held their place in the top flight since in spite of their tiny budget, were so impressed by Leicester’s achievements that they invited them for a friendly via Twitter.