Leicester City: From Last Place To England's Likely Soccer Champion

May 1, 2016
Originally published on May 3, 2016 3:40 pm

Karishma Kapoor, 20, is a business student, and a fan of soccer — or football, as the game is known outside the U.S. She's also a betting woman. One day last August, she was at her grandmother's house.

"We just all sat 'round just talking, and then football came up. And we thought, 'Why not?'" Kapoor recalls. "It's only a pound, so we put 2 pounds on, at 5,000-to-one odds."

She placed her bet (about $3) online — with those 5,000-to-one odds — that her hometown soccer team, Leicester City, would win the title of England's Premier League — the richest and most-watched soccer league in the world. At the time, Leicester was in last place. Now Kapoor stands to win some $14,600.

And her team stands to make U.K. sports history.

Leicester City had a chance to clinch the league title Sunday, but the team tied 1-1 versus Manchester United. That leaves its fate hanging on a Tottenham-Chelsea game Monday (3 p.m. EDT). If Tottenham ties or loses, the championship is Leicester's.

"It hasn't sunk in. No one in this city at the moment knows how to deal with this," says Ashley Watson, 26, who works at a hospital in Leicester. "Everyone's obviously excited and happy."

Watson has three Leicester City tattoos — across his back, forearm and leg. He got the first one 10 years ago, when Leicester City wasn't even in the top division of English soccer. His forearm reads: "Leicester Till I Die."

"This season is the most remarkable season in the history of — not just football — but my life," he says, choking up. "Because you never thought Leicester could win the league — not without the money of [rival teams] Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal."

Leicester City paid about $24 million to acquire its squad's starting 11 players. The sports' biggest, richest teams — those Leicester has been up against in this competition — often spend that sum to acquire a single star player.

By contrast, Leicester City's lead goal-scorer, Jamie Vardy, was working in a factory a few years ago, playing soccer at night in the U.K.-equivalent of the minor leagues. Now, a biopic film is reportedly in the works about Vardy's life.

This week, the city is bedecked in blue and white — the colors of LCFC, the Leicester City Football Club. Shops and restaurants display "Backing the Blues" posters. Even the Church of England is flying the Leicester City soccer flag, atop the city's gothic cathedral.

Overshadowed by bigger Birmingham 45 miles away, Leicester is one of England's most diverse cities. On a Sunday stroll through the center, NPR spotted an African gospel choir, many Muslim women in headscarves and an entire soccer-crazed Vietnamese family all wearing curly clown wigs in blue and white.

One of Leicester's main thoroughfares, Narborough Road, is known as Britain's most diverse main street.

"On Narborough Road, you can eat Turkish, you can eat Indian, Pakistani, Greek," says Leo Daniels, who lives on the road. "There are so many different languages spoken and different people living here."

Daniels was taking his children out for an evening stroll, to pick up ice cream and soak in local team spirit.

"We're looking at a Leicester City scarf 'round the statue of Richard the III's neck," he says. "Everything connected with Leicester, and about Leicester, is now supporting Leicester City for this title run. It's fantastic."

Leicester is where the bones of the 15th-century King Richard III were found buried under a parking lot several years ago. Some Leicester fans believe the spirit of Richard — who ruled 500 years ago — is guiding their soccer team now.

"If he could be here, he'd be cheering them on!" says Rachel Hare, in a local Leicester pub. "He's been here for 500 years, we just didn't know it!" says her husband, Steve Hare.

And that's pretty much how they feel about their soccer team, too.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Over the past 20 years, only four different teams have won England's Premier League soccer title. You know these names even if you don't follow soccer - Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea. Leicester City is not one of the four. In fact, Leicester City has not won a title in more than 100 years. Just last year, they were on the verge of dropping out of the league entirely.

As we've been reporting on this program though, they're on the edge of winning a winning a title this year. A tie over the weekend against Manchester United didn't quite do it, but they're close. NPR's Lauren Frayer traveled to Leicester.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Karishma Kapoor is a 20-year-old business student from Leicester. She's a soccer fan and a betting woman. One day last August, she was at her grandmother's house.

KARISHMA KAPOOR: We just all sat around just talking. And then football came up and we thought, why not? It's only a pound. So we put two pounds on at 5,000-to-1 odds.

FRAYER: She placed a bet online that her home-town soccer team, Leicester City would win England's Premier League. At the time, they were in last place. Now Kapoor stands to win nearly $15,000 from that $3 bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED FANS: (Cheering).

FRAYER: That's the sound of Leicester City scoring Sunday. They ended up tying 1-1 against Manchester United, which leaves their fate hanging on a Tottenham-Chelsea game Monday. If Tottenham tie or lose, the Premiership is all Leicester's.

ASHLEY WATSON: It hasn't sunk in. No one in this city, at the moment, knows how to deal with this. Everyone's obviously excited and happy.

FRAYER: Ashley Watson has three Leicester City tattoos. His forearm reads, Leicester 'til I die.

WATSON: This season is the most remarkable season in the history of my - not just football but my life because you never thought Leicester could win the league.

FRAYER: With a squad whose starting 11 cost about $24 million to originally acquire. Bigger, richer teams pay up to four times that for one star player.

WATSON: I've got an American journalist interviewing me now about Leicester City. Even a year ago, that would never happen. Everyone knows Leicester now. Everyone knows the story. It's a bet it will be a Hollywood film one day. It will.

FRAYER: Indeed, a film is being made about Leicester's top goal scorer, Jamie Vardy, who a few years ago was working in a factory and playing soccer at night in the equivalent of the minor leagues.

BELLS CHIMING

FRAYER: Even the Church of England is flying the Leicester City soccer flag atop the local Gothic cathedral here. Overshadowed by bigger Birmingham 45 miles away, Leicester is one of England's most diverse cities.

On a Sunday stroll through the city center, I met an African gospel choir, Muslim women in headscarves and an entire soccer crazed Vietnamese family all wearing curly clown wigs in blue and white Leicester City colors. Leo Daniels lives on Narborough Road, known as Britain's most diverse main street.

LEO DANIELS: On Narborough, where you can eat Turkish. You can eat Indian, Pakistani, Greek. There's so many different languages spoke there and different people living there.

FRAYER: Taking his kids out for ice cream, he points out local team spirit.

DANIELS: We're looking at Leicester City scarf around the statue of Richard III's neck. It's like everything connected with Leicester and about Leicester is now supporting Leicester City for this title run. It's fantastic.

FRAYER: This is where the bones of the 15th-century King Richard III were found buried under a parking lot a few years ago. Some Leicester fans, like Steve and Rachel Hare, believe the spirit of their king 500 years ago is guiding their soccer team now.

RACHEL HARE: If he could be here, he'd be cheering them on (laughter).

STEVE HARE: He's been here for 500 years. We just didn't know it.

FRAYER: That's pretty much how they feel about their soccer team too. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Leicester, England.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio introduction to this story, we incorrectly say that before this year only four teams - Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea - had won the English Premier League title. There actually have been five. We left out the Blackburn Rovers, who won the title for the 1994-95 season.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.