Leicester, United Kingdom, Oct 28 – Leicester City’s charismatic Thai boss was feared dead Sunday after a helicopter belonging to the billionaire crashed and burst into flames in the football stadium car park moments after taking off from the club’s pitch.
Neither the police nor the team would confirm or deny whether Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a regular at matches who flies to and from home games, was on board when the helicopter appeared to develop a mechanical problem in its rear propeller after takeoff.
The BBC, Sky News and several British papers quoted sources saying the 60-year-old was among five people who boarded the blue craft from the middle of the pitch once the stadium emptied after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with West Ham.
Leicester City said they would issue no statement Sunday while police thanked fans for their “patience” in a tweet issued a full day after the crash.
Images showed orange balls of flame engulfing the wreckage in the car park at King Power Stadium — the scene of unbridled jubilation after Leicester’s against-all-odds Premier League title victory in 2016.
A witness told Sky News the helicopter spun out of control after clearing the roof of the stadium before steadying itself and crashing into the car park and away from the packed media centre nearby.
Prayers and tributes poured in from across Britain for the jovial man many credit with bringing glory to the central English city with the miracle-making club.
“He’s put Leicester on the map,” supporter Cathy Dann, 55, told AFP.
“He’s made us big.”
A steady stream of grieving fans laid down football scarves and shirts outside the home fans’ entrance as aviation experts picked through small pieces of wreckage scattered on the stadium’s edge.
Among the tributes was an image of Ganesh — a Hindu god also seen in Thai Buddhist temples.
A minute’s silence was observed before the whistle of Sunday’s Premier League matches.
“It is a family business and they have instilled this sense of family not just throughout the club but into the city as well,” Andrew Hulley, the team’s chaplain for the past seven years, told AFP.
– Prayers and disbelief –
While still holding out glimmers of hope, silence from the club and their Thai owners made most people presume the worst.
England legend Gary Lineker, a former Leicester player and host of the BBC’s Match of the Day, tweeted: “That was the most difficult @BBCMOTD I’ve ever hosted… A terrible tragedy. Heartbreaking.”
Leicester stars Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire both tweeted emojis of hands held up in prayer.
Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was manager of the team under Vichai, called his former boss a “very, very generous man” who “saw every game during my time”.
And ordinary fans in central Bangkok said Vichai helped develop Thailand’s football as well, bringing the Southeast Asian country greater recognition in the sports world.
“He is an important person who has raised the bar of Thai football further,” Apichart Jitratkavee, a Leicester fan in the Thai capital, told AFP.
Vichai bought Leicester City in 2010 and moved to chairman the following February, pouring millions into the team and becoming a beloved figure in the club and the city — a feat not always achieved by the Premier League’s foreign owners.
– 5,000-1 odds –
It was under Vichai’s ownership that Leicester crafted one of the biggest fairytales in English football history by winning the 2015/16 Premier League, having started the season as 5,000-1 outsiders for the title.
Vichai’s investments in the club helped return them to England’s Premier League from the second-tier Championship in 2014.
They initially seemed outclassed by richer and more established rival from London, Liverpool and Manchester, languishing at the very bottom of the table for most of the 2014/15 season.
The Foxes, as the team are nicknamed, then engineered what fans now fondly refer to as the “Great Escape”, winning seven of their last nine matches.
They ended up finishing 14th, securing another season in Europe’s richest league in 2015/16.
But not even their most devout fans could have imagined what happened next.
Vardy, signed from non-league Fleetwood Town, scored in 11 consecutive matches, propelling the men in blue to a title without parallel in Premier League history.
The success also qualified them for the first time for the lucrative Champions League, the pinnacle of European football played by the continent’s most successful sides, including Barcelona and Real Madrid.
There, Leicester City defied the odds yet again, winning their group before eventually losing their quarter-final 2-1 over two legs to Atletico Madrid.