As the stadiums emptied out for the final time just over a week ago, the curtain came down on a crazy 2015/16 English Premier League season. So actually being in Leicester recently gave me a first hand glimpse into the power of soccer football.
A 37 hour plane trip, 2.5 hour bus ride, then a tentative walk towards a new home. Leicester, East Midlands, Britain.
Upon choosing my destination, Leicester offered no more to me than a swift journey to London. I imagined my time in this university town as a pit stop to London, a snack before the main meal. The community recipe of university students collected from all over the UK, working class Brits, chummy retirees and the largest Indian population outside India. As an exchange student 17,000 kms away from home, Leicester’s social glue wasn’t immediately evident to me.
I recognised it one Wednesday evening chugging local pints and disarming conversation about the novelty of my Australian accent. A single utterance of the word soccer instead of football let these people know just how foreign I was. Beer certainly provided a lubricant to the situation, but my misstep was as if asking whether the kangaroos roamed free across the Harbour Bridge.
To the uninitiated, football is no more than balls and goals. But it’s a sport of comradery, and for the British it’s a rambunctious celebration of their team regardless of the result. Phrases of support like ‘bleeding the team colours’ are a common utterance in the pub viewing sessions or roaring verses of football chants as you queue to enter a nightclub.
A collection of rejects, Leicester city was just a year ago on the brink of relegation, in the end narrowly avoiding the drop. The real turning point though was a racially tinged sexual misadventure involving the manager’s son. Nigel Pearson was relieved of his duties as manager in the wake of the scandal, with the response from the club leaving them facing ill feelings and confusion from fans. The club’s owner, Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, offered no comment and left fans’ pressing inquisitions unanswered.
Enter Claudio Ranieri; the man who steadfastly steered the Foxes winning ship, a manager who bound a bunch of misfits to a wider goal of success.
Jamie Vardy, the ultimate striker who now represents his country, was once a roadman (that’s British slang for what we would call a lad) with a collection of old tweets that have now entered everyday vernacular amongst football fans, including this classic “Chat Sh** Get Banged”. Riyad Mahrez, a man identified often as a poor man’s Messi, who now holds the title of Player of the Year, thanks to his dazzling footwork on the Leicester team. Or N’Golo Kanté, overlooked by Arsenal but now one of the most in demand midfielders in the world due to his superhuman work rate.
For a total cost of some individual players in the English Premier League, this band of misfits came together and with their success welcomed a whole town into their embrace.
Football is a shared experience. Sunday afternoon’s in university accommodation often featured a laptop plugged into the common room TV to stream the fixtures for the day. Crowded around the screen for a poor stream of the games offered immersion into culture. With each win a roar of support rocketed around the blocks of accommodation. An invitation to Jamie Vardy’s party, where this season he scored at times a goal a game, offered me the chance to talk a shared language. Foreigners and Brits alike sharing the goals and losses like a team of our own.
An exchange student from France residing in Leicester, Justine, agreed. “Foreigners in general were warmly welcomed in Leicester, everyone was kind to me and I couldn’t help smiling at people’s reaction when I said I was French.They seemed happy!”.
Leicester University even changed the campus building names to that of Leicester players. A lecture in Shinji Okazaki Seminar Hall, then a tutorial in Jamie Vardy Tower, a revision session at Claudio Ranieri Library then a gym sesh at Danny Drinkwater Sports Centre.
Revered, celebrated, and institutionalised into everyday life for the university students from the European continent and for those further abroad. Everyone in this town has their own team, a separate affinity from where they come from but somehow Leicester is a uniting and endearing force.
The Foxes kit sold out, the players each gifted a Mercedes from their billionaire boss and their underdog story is now a cultural narrative of unexpected success. Leicester City challenged the odds, the history books and rewarded fans with a previously unattainable goal, the Premier League title.
For a new fan like myself, Leicester City provided a topic of banter, an entry point to conversation and fostered a connection to this new city of mine. My little piece of Leicester now is a blue and gold jersey all of my own. Leicester the quaint little town stole my heart and the Foxes put that spot on the map.