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

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 2, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
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.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.