LEICESTER, United Kingdom, May 3, 2016 (AFP) – Thousands celebrated and millions around the world looked on in wonder as 5,000-1 underdogs Leicester City completed arguably the greatest fairytale in sporting history by becoming English Premier League champions.
Second-placed Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea late on Monday was enough for last year’s relegation battlers to seal a scarcely credible title after outshining some of football’s most glamorous teams.
Leicester’s season of 22 wins out of 36 games and just three defeats means they become champions with two games to spare, with Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool all trailing at a distance.
After fighting off relegation last year and being rated 5,000-1 for the title at the start of the season, Claudio Ranieri’s Thai-owned side have now pulled off a shock rated by many as the biggest seen in sport.
The modest Midlands club are England’s first new champions since Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1978, and their surge in the world’s most watched football league has won them admirers across the globe.
Dancing fans waving blue and white flags poured onto the streets of Leicester, while footage on Twitter showed the team celebrating wildly as they watched Monday’s game at the home of talismanic striker Jamie Vardy.
The players can now look forward to another title party when they lift the trophy at their King Power Stadium following Saturday’s home game with Everton.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. I’ve never known anything like it,” said Vardy. “We were scrapping to stay in the league last season and on Saturday we’ll be lifting the trophy.
“It’s the biggest achievement in the history of a great club and we all feel privileged to be part of it.”
– ‘This is actually impossible’ –
With the Premier League a global sporting phenomenon, attracting billions of pounds in TV rights deals, Leicester’s triumph has been followed worldwide.
Leicester’s previous best season in the English top flight was a second-place finish in 1929, and their last piece of silverware was the 2000 League Cup.
“I’ve never known a spirit like the one between these boys. We’re like brothers,” said captain Wes Morgan.
Britain’s broadsheet and red-top tabloid newspapers turned blue in homage, while The Economist asserted: “There has never been a more improbable victory in any sport.”
Former Leicester and England striker Gary Lineker, 55, called it “the biggest sporting shock of my lifetime”.
“I can’t think of anything that surpasses it in sporting history. It is difficult to put over in words,” the BBC TV presenter said.
“I got emotional. It was hard to breathe. I was a season ticket-holder from the age of seven. This is actually impossible.”
Fans in Leicester, population 330,000, gathered to watch the game in bars and pubs and roared on Chelsea, the outgoing champions, as if supporting their own team.
There were scenes of delirium at Hogarths pub, near the cathedral where 15th-century monarch Richard III was reinterred in March last year.
Supporters spilled into the streets afterwards, chanting the names of Ranieri and top-scorer Vardy, whose 22 goals include a Premier League record of netting 11 games in a row.
“This year I got married and had a baby, but this tops it all,” said jubilant fan Steve Robinson, 26.
– Buddhist prayers –
In Bangkok, the Buddhist monk who has blessed Leicester’s players and pitch said he prayed for them in the small hours of Tuesday, local time, during the Chelsea and Spurs match.
“I prayed for them from 2am till 4am… but the victory does not come from me, it’s from the team and the goodness of the owner,” he told AFP.
Ranieri, who was reportedly flying back from Italy after visiting his 96-year-old mother when Monday’s result came in, said he never expected to win the title when he was hired last year.
“I’m so proud,” the 64-year-old Italian told the club website. “I never expected this when I arrived. I’m a pragmatic man.”
Ranieri had never previously won a league title and was sacked by Chelsea in 2004, but chants of “There’s only one Ranieri!” rang around their ground as Monday’s final whistle approached.
Bringing the story of his association with the Premier League full circle, Ranieri will return to Stamford Bridge for his miracle team’s final game of the season on May 15.