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Fans of Leicester City Foxes watched their team tie the mighty Manchester United 1-1 at the Counting House pub in Leicester on Sunday. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Unglamorous Leicester Revels in Unimaginable Soccer Magic

LEICESTER, England — Soccer-crazed, working-class Leicester is verging on one of those ridiculous seasons, an unimaginable championship that was given worse betting odds at the start than finding Elvis alive.

This is rags-to-riches, “Rocky” and the impossible dream for an unglamorous city in the middle of England best known for having buried Richard III. Now it is getting the kind of recognition that will live on for decades in the fervent, tribal world of English soccer.

The Leicester City Foxes were nearly dropped from the Premier League a year ago, but with a middling payroll and few stars it could now embarrass celebrity rivals including Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.

“Before this, no one knew who we were,” said Kimberley Rayner, 21, hoarse from screaming at the televisions in the hugely overcrowded Counting House pub here on Sunday. A frenetic, heaving mass of supporters saw the Foxes come back to tie mighty Manchester United 1-1, which felt like a victory, especially without their unlikely star, Jamie Vardy, who was sitting out a suspension.

“You can’t put words to it,” Ms. Rayner said, asserting that she has been a supporter since her birth, which was “exactly at kickoff” of a match. “It’s not about the money — our whole team gets paid what some of these stars get — but passion and dreams.”

Karen Fox, 56, said she had attended her first Leicester City game at 10, “when it cost 25 pence to get in and 5 pence for a program.” Now she happily pays more than 415 in British pounds, or about $605, a year for season tickets.

“It’s the victory of the underdog, isn’t it?” her spouse, Jenny Fox, said. “That’s what everyone loves, that anything can happen.” Leicester’s season, she said, was almost better than Britain’s law permitting them to marry, after many years together.

Chris Marquis, 32, came here from Toronto, after being recruited to Leicester Law School. “I didn’t know anything about Leicester, but a friend told me on Facebook that they don’t have a very good soccer team,” he said, managing a pint of lager in one hand and a toddler in the other. “I just went back and sent him a note: ‘You were saying? ’”

Leicester’s winning the Premier League, he said, “would be like a Canadian Football League team winning the N.F.L.”

Leicester, 100 miles north of London, is one of England’s oldest cities, founded 2,000 years ago, and is among its most diverse, with more than 50 percent of its 330,000 inhabitants estimated now to be nonwhite. Twenty percent of the population is Muslim, and almost 20 percent is Hindu or Sikh.

But the people here rub together, with more Asian supporters for soccer than in most English cities — the team is owned by a Thai, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who made millions from duty-free shopping — and a significant reputation for tolerance.

In fact, Leicester, which is pronounced here as “LESS-tah,” is better known for rugby.

But a soccer team has played here since 1894, and its highest finish previously was in 1929 — second place in Division One, the predecessor to the Premier League. Now, if Tottenham loses to Chelsea on Monday night, Leicester will be champion, and can win the league regardless at home against Everton on Saturday.

The team is made up of players who were mostly dumped from richer, more star-studded teams. Even its Italian coach, Claudio Ranieri, 64, is considered a dull journeyman, known as “the Tinkerman” for constantly fiddling with his lineup. When he left Chelsea in 2004, his successor, the star coach José Mourinho, said he had been hired because the team “wanted to win.”

Mr. Mourinho, who won it all last year for Chelsea, was fired in December, and Chelsea now sits 10th in the league, while Mr. Ranieri is hailed as a patient genius. At least until next season, when the bigger, richer teams could play closer to their potential and the fairy dust on Leicester could blow away.

For now, it all seems magical, even divine. At Leicester Cathedral, the statue of Richard III — whose remains, found in a parking lot, were buried in the cathedral with great ceremony last year after a squabble with York — wore a Leicester City scarf.

The Rev. Peter Hobson said the attention was wonderful for the city, and created enormous good feeling after a week when memories of the disaster in 1989 at Hillsborough Stadium, when 96 soccer fans were crushed through police incompetence, filled the headlines with the findings of a new inquest.

“Hillsborough is the tragedy of football, and Leicester City is the opposite,” Mr. Hobson said. “For some people who say, ‘Football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important,’ this has been powerful.”

Of course, he added, “the tragedy in Syria matters more than football, but even if football doesn’t mean as much, it’s still important.”

Mr. Hobson then cited a common feeling of mystery here, that as soon as Richard III was buried, the fortunes of Leicester City, flirting with relegation, took their extraordinary turn, while the York City Football Club, he said with a benevolent smile, “is right down at the bottom of the second league.”

Leicester is basking in recognition, he said. “We’ve always been what we are, and now people recognize us for it.”

“I think this is once in a lifetime,” Mr. Hobson said. “Who knows about next year?”

For now, no one here cares.

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