Leicester City’s success suggests globalisation is strengthening, not killing, English football

Leicester City’s success suggests globalisation is strengthening, not killing, English football


A guest-post from one of my predecessors as Bagehot:

WHEN, two years ago, the bones of Richard III, a crippled Medieval monarch, were dug up from a car park in Leicester on the basis of the sketchiest of archaeological hunches, the locals rejoiced. Not many knew much about the 15th-century tyrant and alleged nepoticide; but Leicester, a rather non-descript, former hosiery hub, in the middle of England, was not known for much either, and some fame was welcome. That should give some inkling of the euphoric scenes enlivening the city this week after an equally improbable but, for the phlegmatic Midlanders, infinitely more wished-for, event: the crowning of the local football team, Leicester City, as champions of England.

It should not have happened. The vast riches that have surged into the English Premier League (EPL), on the back of the ever-more gargantuan television deals that have given the contest an estimated global audience of 5 billion people, have flowed disproportionately to a few lucky clubs. As the size of a team’s wage-bill is closely tied to its on-field success, the result has been a contest that, though fast and thrilling, has been too uncompetitive. Only four wealthy clubs, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, had won the league in the past two decades. This has enabled them to build vast global followings; Manchester United claims to have over 600m fans. But it has caused disaffection among fans of lesser clubs, whose continued vigour is arguably as important to the league’s future success. And even fans of the richest clubs worry about the ways turbo-charged commerce risks pricing out local fans, to the detriment of the league’s storied, local sporting cultures; all four have seen protests in recent years over the high ticket prices and other changes wrought by their foreign—American and Arab—owners.

Leicester, a club as unfashionable and, for the previous 132 years of its existence, mostly as mediocre as the city, was not previously in the chasing pack. Recently bankrupted by one of its regular relegations, the club narrowly narrowly escaped another return to the lower divisions last year, after which it proceeded to lose its respected manager and its best player. Its remaining players were an assortment of jaded lags and off-cuts from bigger clubs. The club’s best forward, Jamie Vardy, was until four years ago playing semi-professionally while working as a medical technician. The club captain, Wes Morgan, was so fat when he launched his career that he was forced to spend his first professional season losing weight. The total cost of Leicester’s regular team, around £25m, is less than a tenth what Manchester United spent on new players last summer. The preseason odds offered by some bookmakers on Leicester winning the league this year were 5,000-1—the same as they were offering on Elvis Presley being discovered alive.

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Then what does it mean, apart from a £25m-calamity for the bookies, that Leicester have defied the maths and won the league, in the process losing only three of their 36 games? For sure, luck has played a part. The four usual EPL winners have, for various reasons, underperformed; Leicester’s players have been fortunate to escape many injuries. But so has skill. Moulded by an avuncular Italian manager, Claudio Ranieri, Leicester’s has-beens and nearlies have emerged as extraordinary—and vastly undervalued—players. Mr Vardy scored in 11 consecutive premier league matches, an unprecedented feat. For those who worry about the league’s over-concentration of resources, it is also clear that, though Leicester is run on a shoe-string compared to its richest competitors, its success is partly due to the general increase in wealth and professionalism throughout the league. The club’s Thai owners have spent little on players, but lavishly on coaching, scouting and training facilities.

For those who worry about the erosion of local sporting culture—an undoubted problem, manifest in greying football crowds around the country—Leicester’s triumph has been a particular filip. Its team has a wonderful spirit; yet this is to some extent reflects the pre-existing depth and singularity of the support Leicester fans have always shown their club, previously in tougher times. Hence the riot of celebrations in Leicester, which has briefly transformed a phlegmatic Midlands city, loth to talk itself up, into an almost bumptious one. Such mature fan loyalty, accrued over decades by clubs tied to local communities and identities, is what makes the EPL so attractive to foreign investors. It is a guarantee of match-day income and a brand to be built on; they exploit it, including with high ticket prices, at their own risk.

The final meaning of Leicester success should be most obvious, though it has too often been obscured. It is apparent in the national feel-good that has sprung from Leicester’s success—all around the country, football fans have cheered it—and is simply how lucky England is to have such a fine, healthy and bonding national game. Globalisation, badly managed, holds potential threats to English football. Yet the evidence, so far, suggests it is mainly making it stronger.

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