Leicester City have qualified for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League with a game to spare, after humbling Club Brugge 2-1 at the King Power stadium on Tuesday night. To top that, they sit pretty on the perch of Group G with 13 points, leaking just a solitary goal, remaining undefeated, and smugly looking down on former European Champions – Club Brugge and FC Porto as well as two-time Scandinavian Royal League winner, FC Copenhagen. The punchline, you’ll find, is in their Premier League form.
Arriving with all the pomp of punk rockers, Leicester City announced themselves by overthrowing the established monopoly of the ‘top four’ last season. They were The Sex Pistols of the Premier League, throwing a bit of anarchy into the equation, upsetting the English football monarchy with all the courtesy of Molotov cocktails being hoicked into the yearly Buckingham Palace Ball.
The initial chuckles turned into curiosity. As weeks passed, curiosity turned into cautious respect. When the papers announced the grand heist of English football’s top crown, respect turned to awe and to endearment. They were the working-class heroes of the working-class people – the greyhound running in football’s Grand National. The raconteurs were the new also-rans, and then went on to be rock stars. And, as with any rock star narrative, the dog days were replaced by decadence.
Twelve games and €77.50 million later, into the 2016-17 season, Ranieri’s side are 11 places worse off in the league standings than what they were at this juncture 12 months ago (plummeting from third to 14th). Their recruitment drive was thronged by wide-eyed fans on social media, witnessing the breaking of their transfer record twice in one window – procuring CSKA Moscow’s fleet-footed forward Ahmed Musa [€19.50 million] and Sporting Lisbon’s boisterous battering-ram, Islam Slimani [€30 million]. Leicester City’s domestic disarray since the turn of the season stuck a foot out as common sense passed by, tripping up conventions, and leaving a lot of bookmakers livid on the floor. The ultimate gag, seems to be on the fans, though, like with any punk rock following.
Despite the trickle-down effect of the Premier League’s broadcasting windfall this year, and the burgeoning figures in the improved players’ contracts being doled out, progression in the Champions League still promises a bigger pay-day. Of the 12 league games that Leicester City side have dragged their collective heels through, they lost six, conceding 20 goals in 2016; compared to having lost just once till mid-November of 2015. This begs to ask the question – have Leicester City’s virtues been led astray by the bright lights and heavy pockets of pastures new? The evidence over the past four months seems damning enough.
There are perhaps two kinds of footballers at Leicester City at the moment: One, the type who didn’t quite expect to reach the dizzying heights of last season in the entirety of their footballing lives and know for certain that they might never again; the other, having broken through the glass ceiling, have half an eye on the stars and the stratosphere. The club is being used a step-ladder to attain stardom at a readier frequency, on a grander stage of a bigger club.
There may not be another chart-topper, or an encore at Leicester city square, in the merry month of May. There may be no voices shouting out from rooftops and open-roof buses again, pledging love and allegiance. This time, last year, they were playing like they had nothing to lose. This time, this year, they are playing like they have nothing left to win, playing more for the payoff than for the glory.
Active from 1975-78, The Sex Pistols craze didn’t last for more than two-and-a-half years. By the end of it, they didn’t stand by what they stood for, and their feats were reduced to flukes – a flash in the pan, relegated to the footnotes of history.
The rude realisation of Leicester City’s season is slowly dawning on their season ticket holders. It’s like the surreptitious service tax being levied on a previously subcharge-free ATM, not dissimilar to the one you stop by on the way back from work. The only difference is, the fans visiting the King Power stadium on weekends don’t get their money back, or a slip dispensed, with the fine-print subtly telling them that they are being punked.