Little teams matter too

The unlikely triumph of Leicester City, the new champions of the English Premier League, is a window to a larger geographic and demographic shift in England

May 04, 2016 03:03 am | Updated 03:20 am IST

Rooting for the underdogs: “Without the less well-known teams, football would be very hollow.” Leicester City fans celebrate outside the King Power stadium.

Rooting for the underdogs: “Without the less well-known teams, football would be very hollow.” Leicester City fans celebrate outside the King Power stadium.

Football’s billions of fans around the world call it the beautiful game. Once in a while, it really does live up to that reputation.

There is something magical and magnificent about the underdog humbling the high and mighty. And that is what has just happened in the country that gave birth to the world’s most popular sport.

You don’t have to be a supporter of unfashionable Leicester City — you don’t need to know where Leicester is even — to be moist-eyed at their inspiring achievement. A team that was expected to struggle to survive in England’s Premier League has emerged as champions. A side put together on a shoestring (compared to its key rivals) has won the richest football league of them all.

Winning against the odds

Only once before since the Premier League was established in 1992 has a team outside the ‘big five’ — Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City — won the title. And Leicester City were so desperately unfancied, bookmakers were offering 5,000-1 this time last year on the team achieving such a triumph. Talk about winning against the odds!

This is not a knock-out competition, where a run of good form and good luck can turn an unlikely bunch of outsiders into cup winners. The Premier League is week after week of hard pounding — 38 gruelling games over nine months of high-octane football. And Leicester have taken the title — to the delirium of the residents of this seen-better-times Midlands city — with two games still to play.

Some will say that Leicester won through in a season when the big teams all stumbled. That’s true. Last year’s champions, Chelsea, got off to a dismal start which led to the sacking of their manager. Manchester United also failed to find their form.

But that’s only a small part of Leicester’s fairy tale. The team has proved to be brilliant talent spotters, seeking out and snapping up players of potential in much lower divisions. The entire team has been assembled for less than the ‘fat cat’ clubs often spend on a single striker.

The Leicester players worked as a team — they ran further, harried harder, chased more determinedly than their opponents. And as they started winning, their confidence grew, their supporters became more vocal, their home city swelled with pride. Most still thought that Leicester would fade in the second half of the season. Even a few weeks ago, their manager refused to accept that his players might, just might, win the Premier League.

Leicester City’s rise reflects the growth of Asian influence in football. The club is owned by Thai businessmen, and the team’s stadium shares the name of their Bangkok-based retail and travel company, King Power. Many English fans resent the growing number of foreign entrepreneurs buying into the Premier League — a business so successful that the TV rights alone bring in billions of dollars a year — but Leicester has done well out of the Asian connection.

And their victory changes the geography of English football. For decades, the game has been dominated by teams from London and from Lancashire in the industrial north-west. The big Midlands cities — Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham, Leicester, Derby — have had precious little sporting success to shout about. Now the pendulum is swinging their way.

All these Midlands cities have large South Asian populations, and Leicester is forecast to be the first English city where more than half the population is from ethnic minorities. The Indian community has been slow to make its mark on the football pitch but is increasingly visible in the stands of spectators at clubs such as Leicester.

The city has also had another quite astonishing turn of fortune. Four years ago, the remains of King Richard III (the one that Shakespeare makes declare, forlornly: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”) were discovered under a city centre car park. Last year, he was accorded a reburial worthy of a king near the high altar in Leicester cathedral. There are those who say that the subsequent dramatic improvement in the fortunes of the local football team is no coincidence.

No more monopoly

Above all, Leicester’s success in the Premier League hits back at the emerging monopoly within English football. The ‘big five’ teams have been attracting all the money, the acclaim, the worldwide following —— elbowing out the smaller clubs. But without the less well-known teams, the game would be very hollow.

Football is nothing without its fans. And those with the greatest passion for their sport are often followers of these second-tier teams — whose loyalty is not swayed by the prospect of triumph and trophies, but by affinity with their childhood team, the local club, the side their dad used to support.

My team is Huddersfield Town — a Yorkshire side which last won the league fully 90 years ago. Fortune has not been kind to them in the intervening years. But every Saturday, several thousand of their fans crowd the terraces and chant: “So Town play up, and bring the cup, back to Huddersfield”.

If Leicester City can win the Premium League, perhaps one day Huddersfield Town can too. And wouldn’t that be beautiful!

Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC Delhi correspondent and has also reported for the BBC on British politics.

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