London, United Kingdom, Oct 28 – Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai billionaire owner of Leicester City feared dead after his helicopter crashed outside the Premier League club’s stadium on Saturday, is the author of one of football’s greatest fairytales.
Also a polo enthusiast, Vichai, 60, endeared himself forever to Leicester fans when the unfashionable club broke the grip of English football’s traditional giants to win the Premier League in 2016 — the first top-flight title in their history.
The title win, priced by bookmakers at 5,000-1 odds before the season began, put the city in England’s Midlands on the global sporting map and brought glory to generations of long-suffering fans.
The Foxes have been unable to reach the same meteoric heights since, finishing 12th in the following season and ninth in 2017-18.
But they are now firmly established in the Premier League unlike when Vichai took over in 2010 with the club languishing in the Championship, English football’s second tier.
“He made the club from second division up to first division winners and made the club a big Premier League club today,” said former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, the first Leicester manager hired by Vichai in 2010.
Leicester were promoted to the top flight by winning the Championship in the 2013/14 season just two years before shocking the world by winning the Premier League.
Unlike many foreign owners of English clubs seen as having little connection to local fans, the bespectacled Thai was known for his unerring common touch.
Fans were treated to a free beer to celebrate his birthday ahead of a match against Newcastle in April this year.
Season-ticket prices have been frozen for the past four seasons, while Vichai also donated £2 million ($2.5 million) to help build a local children’s hospital in the aftermath of the club’s title triumph.
“They’ve been wonderful with the fans but they’ve been wonderful with the wider community,” said Matt Davis, vice-chairman of the Foxes Trust fans’ group.
“They are not your average businessman (and his family) that attend a handful of games a season, they are here every game and this that’s unfolding is just a total tragedy.”
Despite his popularity, Vichai remains an enigmatic figure, rarely giving interviews, and preferring to let his son Aiyawatt, known as “Top”, act as the family frontman.
The sight of him arriving and leaving from matches in his helicopter from the centre-circle of the pitch was a common sight.
It was from there he was believed to have boarded and taken off after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with West Ham before the helicopter crashed in the car park directly outside the stadium.
– Shrewd investment –
Leicester supporters quickly warmed to him after he bought the then Championship strugglers for an estimated 40 million pounds.
The devout Buddhist is a firm believer in the power of karma, flying in Thai monks to bless Leicester’s pitch and give their players lucky amulets.
And while pumping tens of millions of pounds into the team, club infrastructure and reducing debt, Vichai spent judiciously.
Leicester’s title triumph was built on an exceptional scouting network that plucked star striker Jamie Vardy from non-league side Fleetwood Town and N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez from the French second division.
“He (Vichai) is a successful businessman and he tried to challenge himself to get something done,” Top, Leicester’s vice-chairman, told AFP in Bangkok in 2016.
“He said, I think two or three years before, that he wants the team to be a success in the Premier League, and now we are.”
– Royal connections –
Known for rubbing shoulders with celebrities, his surname, meaning “light of progressive glory,” was bestowed by Thailand’s late king Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The avuncular Vichai has carefully navigated Thailand’s treacherous political waters of recent years, while taking his King Power empire from strength to strength.
He established the company in 1989, starting with a single shop in Bangkok and building a multi-billion-dollar empire.
King Power hit the jackpot in 2006 when it won the duty-free concession at Bangkok’s cavernous new Suvarnabhumi airport, and with it a captive market of tens of millions of travellers.
In 2007, a year after ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Manchester City’s former owner, was dumped from office in a coup, Vichai saw off legal moves to break his duty-free monopoly.
In a kingdom where connections count, he now firmly belongs to the royalist establishment that turfed out Thaksin. His family received its royal surname in 2013.
Before football, his first sporting love was polo, the sport beloved of the international elite, and both he and Top are accomplished players.
Vichai boasts a lifetime membership at London’s Ham Polo Club, frequented by the British royals, and also spent around £30 million in a stable of thoroughbred horses.