Who knew anxiety could be so joyous? It was officially 'Blue Day' in Leicester yesterday, but this was a place neither apprehensive nor afraid.
As their club stood poised to deliver perhaps the greatest football story ever told, the place was ravishingly, rhapsodically blue . With dusk descending, the town hall was bathed in blue light. Butchers screamed about the dubious virtues of their lurid blue sausages.
Outside Leicester Cathedral, where the bones of Richard III were reinterred after their discovery beneath the bowels of a city-centre car park, somebody had even thrown a blue scarf around a statue of old Crookback himself.
Trepidation, even on the eve of the ultimate triumph, was not the Leicester way. Where the genial Claudio Ranieri has led, with exuberance and unquenchable optimism , the city he has made his home has followed as one. Out of even indifferent souls, Leicester's story has made helpless romantics.
Two years ago, Ella Lodek, hawking fruit and vegetables from her market stall, would hear of supporting nobody besides Wisla Krakow in her native Poland. This weekend, she has come to work sporting a spangly blue stetson and a giant inflatable fox. "To be a fan of Leicester is to be a fan of football," she said. "It is just beautiful."
This afternoon, Ella will watch the match, as normal, from the Market Tavern pub, near the Corn Exchange, alongside hordes of Italian and Portuguese students smitten by Leicester's rise. Except this one is anything but normal. Should Ranieri's swashbuckling side claim just one more victory , at the expense of a brittle Manchester United at Old Trafford, they will be immortals, the most implausible league champions bar none – and all with two games to spare.
No wonder it felt like the night before Christmas. But forget all that talk about not a creature stirring, not even a mouse. This was a city already mobilising for the most lavish Mardi Gras this side of the Bayou. Posters of Ranieri, N'Golo Kanté and newly-anointed PFA player of the year Riyad Mahrez towered above the Saturday shoppers on Humberstone Gate, 30ft high.
The 'LCFC' insignia had even been etched on to bread loaves in bakers' windows.
Perhaps the most dementedly partisan display belonged to Brü Coffee on Granby Street, where baristas in blue-and-white jesters' hats claimed theirs to be "the coolest coffee shop in all the world". Here, it was possible to order a 'Vardy-cino', a cappuccino subtly modified so that the chocolate powder settled to form an uncanny silhouette of Jamie Vardy on the froth. It was, by some distance, the most popular item on the menu.
"The mood around town is not one of nerves, but excitement," said Hamza Bodhaniya, Brü's owner. "I have been a Leicester season-ticket holder for years, and I could never have expected anything like this. I travelled to Dubai on business last week. Normally, whenever I am abroad, I have to explain where Leicester is: '100 miles north of London, not too far from Birmingham', that kind of thing. But for the first time in my life, as soon as I said Leicester, people knew exactly what I was talking about ."
Bodhaniya, as a member of Leicester's Gujarati community, once the second largest in the world, believes strongly that his club holds up a mirror to the dazzling ethnic eclecticism of his city. "It starts from the team itself," he says, in tribute to a league-of-nations starting XI encompassing players from Austria to Algeria, Jamaica to Japan. "The harmony is extraordinary. You feel it at the club. Nobody cares about who you are, where you're from, what you do for a living. Football is the one sport that transcends everything."
Leicester is not conditioned to great outpourings of civic pride. The blue flags festooning every street are a recent phenomenon, introduced as the league title turned from a tantalising possibility into an overwhelming likelihood. But the club's irresistible success has bred an understated confidence, of the sort that brings a smile from every trader whenever Ranieri and his merry men are mentioned. "I have never known business so good," said Vanessa Loomes, behind the counter at Andrew Sykes' Butchers. "Football has brought the world to our doorstep."
She is not wrong. This season, the modestly-sized media suite at Leicester's King Power Stadium has hosted documentary crews from Greece and Ghana, Belgium and Brazil, not to mention American magazine writers desperate to make some sense of a tale confounding all logic. Indeed, Leicester's achievements have moved so far beyond the realm of rational thinking that theories abound that it is Richard III's doing. After all, the last of the Plantagenets was entombed at the cathedral on March 26, 2015, when the club were still deep in the relegation mire. They have been essentially unstoppable ever since.
Whether this has come about from the dark forces mustered by Richard, or the subtle genius of Ranieri, seems scarcely to matter now. All that Leicester's restless supporters trust is that this exhilarating narrative receives the right ending, preferably today. All they need, on this day of days, is one last push, one final flourish to finish the miracle off.
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