With the Foxes edging towards the unlikeliest of title triumphs, Goal looks at how their remarkable Premier League campaign has captured the hearts of fans across the globe
Samuel Eto’o has enjoyed a rather peripatetic career. The three-time Champions League winner has pretty much seen and done it all. The game had begun to lose its capacity to surprise him. Until this season.
“I had the chance to fall in love with a lot of clubs,” the Cameroonian striker said last week, “but now I’m in love with Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester.” He is not alone. The whole sporting world, it seems, has fallen under the thrall of ‘The Tinkerman’ and his tenacious team of title-chasers.
Indeed, this season, Ranieri has made a point of shaking the hand of every journalist in attendance at his pre-match press conferences – yet was unable to do so ahead of last Sunday’s meeting with West Ham at the King Power Stadium as there were simply too many reporters present. Leicester have become the sporting story of the 21st century – and it’s easy to understand why.
A year after narrowly avoiding relegation, the Foxes are on the verge of winning their first ever English championship. They are five points clear with just four games left to play, meaning that three more wins would secure the Premier League title. Their dream is poised to become reality and Leicester is, consequently, awash with excitement and enthusiasm.
Earlier this season, the city council was inundated with requests to rename a street after star striker Jamie Vardy, who broke a Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive games. The mayor has now rejected that proposal – only because he feels that every player should be recognised for their sensational efforts this season. “It has been a real team effort, so as well as Vardy Vale we would need to have Schmeichel Street, Drinkwater Drive and Ranieri Road,” Sir Peter Soulsby told The Times.
In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Leicester has suddenly become the focus of world football.
“There’s been a growing international presence within the press box even in the last few weeks,” explains Tom Maston, who has been covering Leicester’s remarkable title tilt forGoal UK.
“There were three Italian journalists doing a piece on Ranieri last week, while the French, Dutch and Spanish reporters who are usually found at the traditionally bigger teams have been popping up at the King Power Stadium.
“As you can imagine, plenty of Japanese journalists have been keenly following the exploits of Shinji Okazaki, while there was even a writer from ESPN’s US magazine at a couple of games writing a feature on their story – so Leicester are even looking capable of breaking the American market!”
Indeed, in the United States, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are adorning the front pages of publications such as Newsweek, who are wondering if Leicester can “end the dominance of football’s superclubs forever”. American football superstar Tom Brady took time out to send Kasper Schemeichel a special message of support after learning that the Danish goalkeeper was a New England patriots fan, while the Carolina Panthers are just one of a number of sporting outfits across the globe to have taken inspiration from Leicester’s rise to the top of the Premier League standings, with the NFL outfit Tweeting in January: “You’re No.1 in our hearts.”
The Foxes are also getting plenty of love in Italy, Ranieri’s homeland. Every Leicester game is now broadcast live on television, with Fox Sport proudly employing the old adage ‘Italians do it better’ as an advertising slogan with which to herald the country’s long and proud tradition of excellence in coaching.
Certainly, Ranieri’s peers have all rallied around him. “For us Italians, what he’s doing is huge,” enthused Sampdoria boss Vincenzo Montella, while Leicester’s recent win against Sunderland was the lead story in both La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport. As Marcello Lippi said, “We’re all reading about the most incredible footballing story of the last 30 years.” Fabio Capello, meanwhile, feels that “Leicester are like a Fontana masterpiece.”
It is the way in which Leicester have connected with the average football fan that is most remarkable, though. In Munich’s most popular football bar, ‘Stadion an der Schleißheimerstraße’, Leicester games now draw bigger crowds than the traditional heavyweights of the English game.
It is a similar story across Premier League-mad Africa. Unsurprisingly, Mahrez jerseys are now a common sight on market stalls in his native Algeria but Leicester supporters are popping up everywhere, according to the editor of Goal Ghana, Kingsley Kobo. “Here, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal have always been the most popular English sides but there are a growing number of Ghanaians who wouldn’t miss a Leicester fixture for the world,” he reveals.
But it is in Thailand where Leicester’s popularity has really exploded. Whereas once chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha struggled to persuade his compatriots to get behind the club, now the ‘Siamese Foxes’, as they are affectionately known, have become the nation’s adopted team.
The Leicester Thailand Fan Club on Facebook has over half a million followers and the interest in the surprise title tilt has been so great and so unexpected that King Power’s merchandise stores had run out of replica shirts by February, with the country’s ever-expanding supporter groups now having to order them from the United Kingdom.
There are even those that believe that Leicester’s success can be attributed to their Thai connection, given that Srivaddhanaprabha, a practising Buddhist, has been regularly flying monks over to the King Power Stadium to bless the pitch and hand out lucky talismans to the players. “The team will be the No.1 in the Premier League this year for sure,” Phra Prommangkalachan prophesised in March.
Leicester, of course, could yet relinquish their lead but the whole sporting world will be praying that this particular love story has a happy ending. Indeed, Gennaro Gattuso recently spoke for millions across the world when he pleaded: “Give them the title now!”