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Glorious summer in sight for Leicester City after many winters of discontent

LEICESTER: When King Richard III was reinterred in Leicester in March last year 500 years after his death, fans of the English city’s unheralded soccer club might have thought it too was dead and buried.

Richard’s remains had been found beneath a municipal car park. Leicester City were also at a low point, bottom of the Premier League table having won just six games all season.

Then they embarked on an incredible run, winning seven of their last nine matches to comfortably avoid relegation.

Now are on the brink of becoming league champions for the first time in their 132-year history, with just three defeats all season.

Their exploits have thrust the provincial city into the global spotlight once again.

“It’s a remarkable coincidence,” Wayne Harding, a season ticket holder for 34 years, said of the link between Richard’s reburial and Leicester’s meteoric rise.

Rated 5,000-1 long shots by bookmakers last August, if “the Foxes” win at Manchester United on Sunday, the title will be theirs with two games still to go.

“Everybody’s buzzing. If they do it on Sunday, it will be an absolutely banging day,” said Harding, 53, standing by a new statue of King Richard outside the city’s cathedral.

Leicester, about 100 miles (160 km) north of London, has become a sea of blue and white, the team’s colours.

Bunting with the club crest flutters from poles in the main shopping thoroughfares and shop windows are adorned with huge Leicester flags and blue and white balloons.

“It’s had a massive impact, everyone’s talking about it whether you’re a fan or not,” said Ian Derry, 51, who went to his first game in 1969.

In a league dominated for the last 25 years by a select few rich, glamour clubs such as Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal, neutrals and supporters from other clubs are also rooting for Leicester, said shop-worker Derry.

“The great escape surprised us all and then to push on to the top and possibly, possibly win it, is unbelievable. All the planets just seem to have aligned.”

ALL GONE MAD

The highest Leicester have previously finished was second, way back in 1928-9. The club has also been FA Cup runner-up four times but never triumphed, although it has won the less prestigious League Cup three times.

Just eight years ago, it was languishing in the third tier of English football.

“I’ve worked in Leicester for 10 years and never heard a word about Leicester football club until this year,” said Phil Wiley, 52, who hails from northeast England. “Now everyone is banging on about them. They’ve all gone mad.”

Billboards for the Leicester Mercury newspaper read “Biggest Game in Club’s History” and “Pubs Set For Big City Party”.

Bars and restaurants are offering blue-themed food and drinks, a butcher is selling sausages named after Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, and pubs are pouring beer named in honour of top scorer Jamie Vardy.

One restaurant is planning to give away 1,000 free curries to season-ticket holders if Leicester win the title.

WHERE IS LEICESTER?

Like its soccer team, Leicester itself has rarely found itself in the headlines.

The city, which dates back to Roman times some 2,000 years ago, is one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse areas, with about half its 330,000 citizens non-white British, according to a 2011 census.

The tourist office’s list of famous residents past and present has few household names, featuring the likes of psychedelic rock band Gaye Bykers On Acid and crooner Engelbert Humperdinck.

“It’s not a high-profile city. We’re not really on the tourist map. When we went abroad and said we’re from Leicester, they didn’t know where it was,” said Bev Danson, 56, who has lived in Leicester all her life.

The discovery and reburial of Richard’s body was estimated to have brought an extra 59 million pounds ($86 million) to the local economy, attracting an extra 600,000 visitors to the city.

Resident’s believe the club’s success will have a far greater impact, with English soccer avidly followed by millions of fans across the globe and the team certain to play in Europe’s most prestigious competition, the Champions League.

“It seems as though all eyes are on Leicester,” said Pratik Master, managing director for Lilu Restaurant which is serving up dishes renamed after the team’s manager, who came in for a meal last week, and players.

The fact that the club has a Thai owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and a Japanese striker, Shinji Okazaki, has also ensured an eager following in Asia.

“We’ve had a great 18 months in Leicester with Richard III but now with the Foxes it’s brought the world even closer,” Master said.

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