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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

How a glimpse of sporting glory turned an English city football mad

Three years ago Leicester shocked the world when it won the Premier League. Now the same fans, including many cricket-loving Muslims, are enthralled by England's World Cup prospects

England's Jamie Vardy: The talisman whose goals propelled Leicester City to an unlikely Premier League victory in 2016. John Sibley/ Reuters
England's Jamie Vardy: The talisman whose goals propelled Leicester City to an unlikely Premier League victory in 2016. John Sibley/ Reuters

For 32-year-old Leicester resident Farhad Ali, there is only one sport. Growing up in the Pakistani city of Peshawar any moments outside of school were spent playing cricket on dusty stretches of land on the city’s outskirts. It was this or watching his hero Imran Khan lead Pakistan to victory in the 1992 World Cup on a crackling tv stream in constant danger of fading out.

“It’s almost impossible to believe that I could learn to love football,” he said.

At the age of 12 his family moved to Leicester in Britain’s midlands and Farhad’s love for cricket continued. Yet, three years ago his head was turned by the greatest shock in Premier League football history when Leicester City, who some predicted would be relegated, won the league.

“I always thought of footballers as petty, overpaid men. People who didn’t love their club or the city they were playing in,” he told The National.

“Then here was a team of underdogs whose squad cost one percent of the big clubs. People thought Leicester would be relegated but instead they won the league. I think many of my friends who don’t really like football connected with it and that lead to them following England too.”

For many in the city, they see a lot in common with the unheralded Leicester City title winners and an England team that fans had little expectations for.

Days after England beat Colombia to advance to Saturday’s Fifa World Cup quarter final the fervour for a team also described as “underdogs” by Farhad remains unabated. Football fever, whether for England or Leicester, is drawing in a new wave of fans ahead of the national team’s quarter final on Saturday.

As Simon Reed opens his vegetable stand in the city’s central market, it doesn’t take much to set off a chorus of songs about England. The excitement is palpable for the next match.

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“If you come out and see the atmosphere when the England games are on there’s a really diverse group of people watching. On Tuesday I had to explain to an older gentlemen from the Asian community what the offside rule was. He was delighted when we won.”

“Everyone is coming together and supporting the team. I definitely think we all became a bit bored of all the hype over the national team so it’s been a great surprise,” adds his colleague Tom Fett.

At nearby De Montfort University, known for its high-respected sports science courses, a big screen was erected for the England-Colombia game, a move that drew in hundreds. “We’ve always been a sports city and have punched above our weight across rugby, cricket and football considering our size,” said Leicester resident and post-graduate student Joe Hooper.

“Leicester was proud when we won the league and you can see the sort same emotions like hope and excitement in the city as England go further in the World Cup. I didn’t believe in Leicester, but I believe in the national team now.”

Since UK rugby union became professional the Leicester Tigers have been the most successful professional side with ten titles. As The Foxes, the city’s football team struggled, the Tigers went from strength to strength and contributed the core of England’s 2003 rugby world cup triumph. When the tables turned, the Tigers were delighted to see their football cousins win the league.

“We celebrated their victories and they did so for us too. The rugby side has always been successful so I think Leicester City were thankful for our support,” said Phil Warrington of the Tigers.

“Many of the players are football fans and the English victories are creating a buzz around the ground. We’ve arranged viewings of the games and the rugby community is pulling behind England. It’s a city coming together,” he added.

The excitement felt is partly due to the inclusion of two Leicester City players who again typify the stereotype of an underdog. Jamie Vardy, the talisman whose goals propelled City to an unlikely championship, spent years traipsing around the lower leagues.

Then there is Harry Maguire, the robustly built centre back manning England’s backline. Only two years ago he was in the stands watching England at the European Championships, as they crashed out to minnows Iceland. On social media he shared a photo of him and his friends watching the same tournament as spectators. “It’s a measure of the man that he flew the same guys out to Russia,” said Mr Reed.

For Farhad, it’s those sorts of personal stories that eventually attracted him to football. A member of Leicester’s large Asian community, estimated to represent 35 per cent of the city, he hopes the good feeling towards England’s football team continues.

“All the cricket fans won’t necessarily turn over to die hard football fans but they’ve definitely taken a greater interest. I don’t think it really matters to be honest. The city is excited for England in a way I’ve never really felt before.”