Leicester, my Disneyland

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Jamie Vardy’s lookalike and me outside the stadium. His real name is Lee Chapman and he’s a postman

 

I tried. I travelled the 1,300 miles that separate Rome from Leicester imagining what I would find. I put my pen and notebook into my backpack determined to write a report on the miracle of Leicester City. I swear I tried. I tried to be a professional journalist. I tried, but I was overwhelmed. I didn’t make any written notes, just a tide of Post-it notes written on my heart and in my eyes. I thought I was going to Leicester but found myself in Woodstock. Yes, because for my generation, for those who have always dreamt of the improbable overtaking logic, this Saturday in May in the East Midlands will always be remembered as the day the world was turned on its head. Everyone danced, sang and laughed out loud at this party of all parties. People of all races, all nationalities and all ages came together to celebrate the eternal losers who were suddenly projected onto the winner’s podium. A sea of people who climbed on the most absurd and unlikely bandwagon football has ever seen.

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Smiling fans waiting to enter the stadium

 

There are no issues here in Leicester. Everyone supports their club as they have for years. In this ‘middle earth’ everybody needs everyone and integration is a must. This middle earth does not feel like a ‘Mafia capitale’, even though everybody calls Claudio Ranieri ‘The Godfather’. This is the football capital of the people and for romance. This is the place where fear does not exist. In a city of about 300,000 inhabitants, only 45% are white. Being black, white or Asian in Leicester makes no difference. All skin colours are lost in the blue of the Foxes.

“Where are you from?” asks Robert, an English teacher living in Cambridge I met on the 158, the bus that goes to Leicester from Earl Shilton. It is the birthplace of Robert and also the only accommodation I could find in a 20-mile radius of Leicester. From 9:30 am on Saturday 7 May, we will spend the whole day together. He will be my guide on my personal vigil in this unexpected footballing paradise.

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Robert Coe, my guide in Leicester

 

He has dreamed of this day since he was born. He can not explain what has happened, because no one here could even have conceived of such a story. But here was history in the making, a stone’s throw from Nottingham, until now the most famous city in the East Midlands. A few months ago he used to answer ‘Leicester’, to someone asking ‘Where are you from?’ However he also used to add, ‘close to Nottingham’, to make it clearer. Now he wants to share the excitement of being at the centre of the world. I let myself be guided towards the stadium. Seven hours before the match, we do not have tickets, but we do not care. Maybe we will find them, maybe not. We go on a pilgrimage, we are the daydreamers. Actually there were five days of daydreaming that we will share with everyone here since Hazard stopped Tottenham’s challenge and presented the trophy to Leicester.

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Lee Jobber, life-long Leicester fan, better known as Lee “the drummer”

 

We meet Lee Jobber, probably the most famous Leicester fan in the world. A gentle giant with dozens of tattoos dedicated to the Foxes. He’s been watching Leicester since he was 4 years old. Today, he is 36, and since 2003 has been the official drummer at the stadium. Away from the stadium he is a support teacher for disabled children in local schools. Both he and Robert, unlike many of their fellow citizens, have never supported a more prestigious club. Even in 2009 when the champions of today faced Yeovil in League One, the third tier of English professional football.

They hug each other and smile. Rob then asks him where he was on Monday, the day of their jubilant triumph. Lee tells him and Robert breaks down and cries. A serious English teacher in tears when recalling their greatest triumph. “Comparable only to the birth of my son”, he said, quickly wiping his eyes. It has the decency of an adult and the candour of a child. I understand him. He asks who these Italians are, arriving in ten coaches. “They are the last romantics, Rob. Those accustomed to more lows than highs. Look at them, none of them have the shirt of Juve. They have those of Bari, Parma, Padova, Reggina. Fans from football’s outskirts on a day out.

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A group of Italian fans in Leicester

 

Vardy and Mahrez had been identified as the outcasts of football. Vardy is Leicester’s top scorer who came from the lower leagues and a few years ago was playing with an electronic tag as a result of defending a disabled friend. Italian fans are crazy for Mahrez, an Algerian that cost £400,000 two years ago. He came from Le Havre and was a substitute in Leicester’s promotion to the Premier League. Today, he is worth 100 times more and has been crowned PFA Player of the Year. Not only Vardy and Mahrez, but also Drinkwater and Kante, Okazaki and Ulloa, Morgan and Huth. Demigods and heroes. Common guys like many others, but special like none before

But to transport a convoy of buses from Italy (and many private cars and flights) it needs a special connection. “Ranieri, oh oh, Ranieri, oh oh oh. He came from Italy, to manage the City,” sings the tricolor army of a multitude of replica shirts to the leader who, at the age of 64 years, came to the port in a makeshift vessel. He has crossed a thousand seas and often foundered. However he always found a new crew and finally reached the promised land. The idiom ‘Always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ was often said about him in England. Leicester too, used to be the bridesmaid at weddings. Now Claudio and Leicester have got married! Robert said that local families have begun to call newborns Claudio. “What a beautiful name,” he says. Robert nods. People continue to flock to the stadium. We start singing, attracted by a gospel choir that sings to the fans, invoking their gods. The King Power Stadium is their church. The faithful count down the minutes. Still four hours to go to Mass.

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We have time to talk, so I tell Rob that last night I had dinner where Ranieri and his team celebrated their first clean sheet. That happened in October when Leicester was sleeping its dreamless sleep. The manager wanted to show his quintessential Italian style: neither getting beaten, nor taking himself too seriously. The place is called Peter pizzeria, and a margherita prepared by Mauro Altieri from Nola is a Champions League pizza. At the table next to me was Paolo Benetti, deputy to Claudio Ranieri. He is there with friends so I don’t want to interrupt but we meet later at the exit. The fan and the journalist were fighting about what to ask, but the supporter won: “Thanks Paolo, thank you very much. It’s been an exciting year.” He thanked me and then we started talking, but this will be the subject of a next piece.

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Mauro Altieri and Assan El-Oualidi, the Italian duo of Peter pizzeria

 

Three hundred yards away, two guys from Piemonte run an ice-cream shop. They started their business in the summer of 2014, one year before Ranieri arrived in Leicester. Daniele Taverna and Antonio De Vecchi, who are also life partners, conquered Leicester before Ranieri did. “Ranieri is a very nice guy. At the beginning, he often came here. Later on, he could not walk freely downtown. However, we know his assistants still buy ice-cream for him,” says Daniel, a former electrician. “Okazaki is our top client. He is mad about our ice-cream”. Gelato Village is rising in Tripadvisor rankings and thanks to Leicester City, it is sixth place in Britain’s ice-cream shop rankings.

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Daniele Taverna and Antonio De Vecchi, the Piedmont-born partners of Gelato Village

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Free samosas

Robert does not know it, but we will go to the stadium soon. For the moment we fill our stomachs with samosas, handed out free in the hundreds by the local Sikh community. Then Rob hands me a tin of Tyskie: economic, Polish and light. As time goes by, Tyskies almost match the goals scored by Vardy. Around me, many people did the same. For this reason, patients admitted to the local hospital, most of them drunk, doubled that day. Nothing serious, however, the doctors were forced to choose Hippocrates, instead of Dyonisus.    

After a quick greeting and photos of arriving players, we start looking for tickets. In the days before, frightening figures were circulating to get access to the stadium. Thousands of pounds. Not so. Everyone hopes the Everton fans will arrive with tickets to sell. It is a surreal situation. Touts are illegal but in England, the tickets do not contain names and Robert and I are able to acquire two tickets for the away end. It’s raining and still 45 minutes to kick-off. I’m happy, especially for him. We get a little nervous while entering the area reserved for visiting supporters, but after a few cautious glances we realize that 70% of people around us are from Leicester. I’m not surprised. The Everton supporters come together with the whole stadium and they applaud Bocelli and join the party peacefully.

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Inside The King Power Stadium

 

The game is a walk in the park and Leicester win 3-1, with a brace from Vardy interspersed with a goal by Andy King. In the final few minutes Everton supporters cheer for a consolation goal by Mirallas.

Robert has changed places, a few steps below, to be closer to the home fans. To Italians it seems absurd, but in England, the two sets of fans are practically neighbours. Next to me in the meantime I meet Matt, who works in advertising. He whispered: “I am from Leicester, but I support Liverpool.” Everton fans could even tolerate Leicester fans celebrating by their side, but not him for sure! He seems more worried about supplies from the bar, so we drink a little Singha, the Thai beer which has the monopoly in the stadium. Matt wants to challenge me, convinced of his British superiority and proud of his beer belly. On our third beer, I see him stagger and make a grimace. “Respect,” he says before disappearing into the bathroom. I take this opportunity to get closer to Robert, who has tried in vain to call me. My i-phone died before Bocelli and Mahrez hit their high notes. I wouldn’t have liked to continue the party without him.

After the final whistle, another game starts. Three brave fans attempt a desperate race onto the pitch, fleeing the stewards, looking for ten seconds of fame. Judging by the way are blocked, the three will regret their courage for a long time.

It is time for Wes Morgan to lift the trophy to the sky. A trophy designed by a jeweller from Leicester, 52-year-old Paul Marsden. Here are the fireworks and streamers. Everyone chants an unlikely “champeones, champeones, ole, ole, ole”, a kind of neologism that not even Robert, who I address as a Cambridge professor, knows how to explain. Why they use this Latin chant, I’ll never know, but I find myself shouting it to the Leicester sky. When the linguistic divisions once again have logic, the fans deliver the classic and timeless “We are the champions”. I am trembling now, much more than ever before.

I will never forget Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the most ‘copy and pasted’ name in journalism, taking his victory lap. Seventeen letters meaning ‘light of progressive glory’, a honorary name Thai King Rama IX gave the Raksriaksorn family (their original name). Rama, the legendary king was crowned in 1946, six years before Queen Elizabeth. On his 70th year on the throne, he leads the triumphant lap, pictured in a vaguely kitsch portrait, behind Vichai and his son, whose King Power organisation monopolises duty-free at Thailand’s airports.

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Robert and Steve Walsh

 

Then the stadium is empty and the streets are filled with the incessant honking of car horns, flags being waved, spontaneous chanting and hugging of strangers. Robert gives a last look at the space where Filbert Street Stadium stood until 2003. It was a hundred yards away from where his club became champions. Here were the memories of his childhood. There was Steve Walsh, a hero from the 90’s. In the morning, when he met Walsh, his eyes shone. The people of Leicester dubbed him “Captain Fantastic”.

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The wasteland where the old stadium stood

 

This long-term fan has big memories and a big heart even when the Premier League champions is a present so bright, it seems to overwhelm everything else. He has not a shred of melancholy in his eyes, but only the knowledge of knowing how far Leicester have come, being surrounded by these car horns, the music of Champions, and fireworks on the pitch. Robert looks around and keeps on saying ‘What a day, what a day’. He resists from crying. Only ten hours ago, I did not know him. Now, I know something about him.

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We head to downtown Leicester. On our way, we are surrounded by cars with joyful passengers, banners in Italian and plenty of celebrating with people walking around, whipped into a frenzy.

And the night continues, meeting new faces met on the street, like Duncan and Ken, my best friends for two hours in Les-tah clubs. I don’t even introduce myself as a journalist, but now it’s, “Hi, I’m Claudio, I come from Italy and I’m just a fan.” My memories are of more hugs, singing, flags, Italians looking for a late-night liason and Englishmen drinking every last drop.

As people begin to flood out of the clubs, a fan climbs the Clock Tower in the main square. Nobody understands why, but maybe it was the alcohol. He wanted to stop time and I think everyone hoped that we would.

I opened my eyes in Earl Shilton at 2.30pm. My flight to Italy was at 3pm. I have messages from Robert, so we know we are both still alive. Honestly, I can not say if I decided not to take the flight as I was lost in the party. Who cares? You can buy a ticket for another flight. You can not buy these memories, they will not come back again. Leicester, my dear, my Disneyland, I will never forget you.

(translated by Barbara Giambene and Robert Coe).

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