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Leicester City: Soccer’s unlikely champion

Leicester City's Leonardo Ulloa celebrates with teammate

Leicester City's Leonardo Ulloa celebrates with teammate Danny Drinkwater after scoring a last minute penalty during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and West Ham United at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England April 17, 2016.

The Leicester City Football Club is on the brink of one of the most extraordinary achievements in all of sports. A win over Manchester United today at that legendary and enormous club’s Old Trafford stadium would earn Leicester City three points and give them the English Premier League title.

Iconic British striker Alan Shearer, whose Blackburn Rovers surprisingly won the Premier League title in 1995, had this to say about Leicester City’s achievements after the Foxes had dismantled Manchester City in February to go six points clear at the top of the table: “Not just the greatest feat in the Premier League era, but the best achievement the top flight has ever seen.”

The English football league was founded in 1888 and developed into four divisions. Its First Division broke away and named itself the Premier League in 1992. Since then, Manchester United has won the Premier League title 13 times and only four other teams have won the title in the 20-team league. Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea are regarded as the giants of the league, swimming in a pool of minnows. Now, a minnow is writing one whale of story.

Leicester City has spent 122 years in the English football system, 49 of them in the top flight. It has never won the top tier title, finishing second once in 1929. In the system of relegation and elevation employed by soccer associations around the world, Leicester has been up and down between the top two leagues and has only been in the third division once, for the 2008 season. Now the Foxes are at the top of the Premier League table, having started the season at 5,000-1 odds to win the title and astonishingly becoming the odds-on favorite. They are seven points clear of second-place Tottenham with three games to go and any three points from those games give them the title.

New Yorker Jason Becker, along with twin brother Jordan, formed the New York Foxes supporters club in 2011 after taking a liking to the team in 1998. This morning they will be at the Legends sports bar in Manhattan along with fellow supporters trying to will their team to the title.

In February Jason Becker went to Leicester (pronounced Less-ter) to see a game at King Power Stadium against Liverpool, then he traveled to Manchester for the game against Manchester City. The Foxes won both games and made believers out of the soccer world.

“When Jamie Vardy hit that huge volley against Liverpool there was this wave of euphoria that went around the stadium and I really felt like something magical was happening,” said Becker. “Then they pretty handily beat Man City; we all realized this wasn’t a bubble that was going to burst. These guys were going to be there at the end.”

“These guys” have proven themselves to be the real deal. Vardy, who will not play against Man United today because of a two-game suspension, is the league’s third-leading scorer with 22 goals. He set a league record this season by scoring in 11 straight games. Riyad Mahrez is fifth in scoring with 17 goals.

Director of recruitment Steve Walsh, regarded as genius by the Becker brothers, is responsible for most of the players on the current squad, and bringing in N’Golo Kante this season has been the glue that binds together a dynamite midfield. Veteran central defenders Robert Huth and Wesley Morgan are pillars of strength. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of the great ManU keeper Peter Schmeichel, has been solid.

The Thai ownership of the club, which took over in 2010, has invested prudently and efficiently in assembling a team that cost very little. The total price, in dollars, to purchase the current Leicester players was about $80 million. The Manchester City players, who the Foxes dominated in February, cost their Middle East ownership about $650 million. Man City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne cost the club as much as the entire Leicester team.

Ownership has invested in stadium upgrades, sports science and analytics and boldly hired a woman with no football experience, Susan Whelan, as the club’s chief executive. She has largely left the football to the football people, and has expanded the club’s marketing, fan strategy and its presence in the city.

The club’s manager is Claudio Ranieri, who’s hiring before the start of the season last year met with widespread skepticism. The 64-year-old Italian has been with 14 teams in 29 years, and managed Chelsea at the turn of the century for four seasons. He replaced Nigel Pearson, who had brought the Foxes up from the second division and had overseen their escape from relegation last year when they won six of their last eight games. Now, Ranieri is beloved and widely depicted as The Godfather of Leicester football.

He returns that love willingly to his players and to the city of 330,000 located 100 miles north of London. “I want to finish my career here,” says Ranieri, who says this team is unique. “Never have I had a dressing room like this one in my career.”

And never have the loyal Foxes’ supporters had a season like this.

“I think a lot of the fans of the club had higher expectations than the pundits did, but we certainly didn’t expect anything close to this year,” said Becker. “I was being optimistic thinking maybe we could finish around tenth place. We’ve been shocked.”

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