Leicester City Tops English Premier League, Thanks To Richard III?

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Could King Richard III (who's been dead for over 500 years) be helping the Leicester Foxes this season? Some fans think so... (Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Could King Richard III (who's been dead for over 500 years) be helping the Leicester Foxes this season? Some fans think so... (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

When I tweeted at Arlo White, the lead soccer announcer for NBC's coverage of Premier League soccer, and asked him to comment on the superstitious buzz that has taken hold among fans of the Leicester City Football Club, I figured he'd tell me it was all a bunch of hogwash.

"This will make a wonderful movie one day," White said. "If you believe in that sort of stuff, it's hard to discount it, isn't it?"

Maybe White is having trouble discounting this particular idea because he was born in Leicester, 100 miles north of London. Leicester's an industrial city, a multicultural city. And, White says, it's a city with some good sports teams:

"The Leicester Tigers are a renowned rugby team that have been European champions. The Leicestershire County Cricket Club have won national championships. The one club I could argue — and I can say this being from the city — that has perhaps let the side down, it's been the football team. They have never won a top division title in their entire 132-year history. You know, Chicago Cubs fans think they've got it bad. You should try being a Foxies fan all these years."

Some Cubs fans link their team's troubles to 1945, when a man name Billy Sianis was told that he couldn't bring his pet goat, Murphy, into the stadium for Game 4 of the 1945 World Series, even though he had bought Murphy his own ticket.

King Richard III (Public Domain)
King Richard III (Public Domain)

But until recently, nobody had blamed the fate of the Leicester Foxes on a curse. For the past 132 years, they've been yo-yo-ing back and forth between English soccer's top two divisions.

At this time last year, the Leicester Foxes looked like they were on their way back down.

"They'd only won six games all season," White says. "They'd endured a horrible, long, hard winter run of 13 games without a win."

But that was last year. That was before the city of Leicester righted a wrong that dates back 530 years.

Let's go back to August 1485. That's when England's King Richard III found himself facing off against the troops of Henry Tudor at a place near Leicester — known then as Bosworth Field.

"And of course, he's killed at the end of the battle," says Dr. Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society.

"Henry Tudor had him taken back into Leicester because it was from Leicester [that] Richard had ridden out to the battle," he says. "And the whole object is to prove to everybody that Richard is dead."

Richard III's dead body was on display for a little while, and then it was hastily thrown into a too-short grave at the Greyfriars Church in Leicester.


Half a century later, the church was dissolved by Henry VIII, who sold off the land. Eventually, the mayor of Leicester built a house on that land, complete with a garden out back.

How often does a 500-year-old, dead king help a sports team?"

Joshua Robinson

"OK, time passes, the house is sold off, the garden is developed, eventually becomes covered over in tarmac, becomes a car park for the social services department of Leicester Council," Stone says.

And under that tarmac is where University of Leicester archaeologists found Richard III. After positively identifying his remains, they set out to bury him again, this time with all the rights accorded to a King of England.

"Well, first of all, Richard was very carefully coffined in an event that took place a week before everything else started," Stone says. "I was one of those very few privileged to attend that."

A week later, Richard III was lowered into his new final resting place. The actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who happens to be Richard's second cousin, 16 times removed, read a poem.

Dr. Stone isn't a football fan, but he says the city of Leicester has been re-energized by the burial of Richard III.

"You only have to be in Leicester these days — I was there on Saturday which was the anniversary of the reburial — you can see that the city is more vibrant. There are more people about."

"When did you first start hearing people correlate the success of a football team with this beautiful reburial?" I ask.

"This was a couple months or so ago that somebody first mentioned it to me," Stone says. "It has to be a coincidence but who knows? Perhaps the old boy is out there. It's just another wonderful part of the whole story."

"It's a hard one to argue with," says The Wall Street Journal's Joshua Robinson, "because how often does a 500-year-old, dead king help a sports team?"

Robinson is the The Wall Street Journal's European sports correspondent. And he's never seen anything like this.

Crowds lined the streets to watch King Richard III's procession on its way to Leicester Cathedral on March 22, 2015. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Crowds lined the streets to watch King Richard III's procession on its way to Leicester Cathedral on March 22, 2015. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

"At the time Richard was reburied, they were in the last place," Robinson says. "And it was from the reburial that they went on a winning streak and now are in first place."

At this time last year, 31 games into the season, Leicester City had won only six games. Thirty-one games into this season, they've won 26. No one was expecting it. In the fall, bookmakers were putting the odds of Leicester City winning it all at 5000 to 1. And now...

"They're the odds on favorites at the moment," Robinson says. "They could probably lose a game or two and still win the title. They're in a commanding position."

Robinson might be the biggest believer of anyone I talked to. I had to ask him twice before he'd give me a real, scientific reason for why Leicester City might be winning:

"OK, voice of science. Two of the main contenders collapsed this season, which already opened up an opportunity. Leicester also has a favorable schedule. And they've also unearthed a whole bunch of gems, players who were, in some cases, playing semi-pro soccer four years ago and have suddenly had this burst of confidence at the same time."

"Are the players believing in this," I ask, "or are they keeping to science?"

"The players are sticking, maybe not to science, but certainly to sports cliché," he says. "I mean this is the most one-game-at-a-time group I've ever heard."

And the fans?

"People in Leicester are not used to this sort of level of success," Arlo White says. "Some of them are fatalistic, they're waiting for it to go wrong.

White will be following this story closely during his Sunday morning broadcasts for NBC sports. But don't expect an answer to the question of whether Richard III is responsible for the Foxes' success. For the people of Leicester, it doesn't matter why the Foxes are on top. What matters is that they stay there.

"They're desperate for their team to win the Premier League for the first time in their history," White says. "The city would go completely bonkers.

This segment aired on April 2, 2016.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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