On November 10, in the English city of Leicester, thousands of people braved the rain to meet downtown and walk to the King Power Stadium, home of the Leicester City Football Club.
There, 30,000 fans paid an emotional tribute to the club’s deceased owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who died along with four others in a helicopter crash outside the stadium on October 27.
The reason that the Thai billionaire was close to the hearts of Leicester fans and respected all over England was because he had bought a club that was struggling in the second tier in English football in 2010 and made it a winner.
Six years later Leicester – a club founded in 1884 nicknamed the “foxes” that had never won anything substantial – topped the English Premier League, the world’s most popular domestic competition, against betting odds of 5,000 to 1.
It was by any account an amazing story that gripped the entire sporting world, and one that Vichai reportedly relished.
Add in his US$2.8 million contribution to a children’s hospital in the city and hearty donations to other local charities and it is clear why there has been such a strong emotional outpouring in Leicester and beyond over his untimely passing.
Less realized, however, is the loss that will also be felt for Thai football, too. Vichai’s involvement in Thailand was not quite as visible or high-profile, but he and his company King Power Group had big plans for the Football Association of Thailand (FAT).
“He had many projects with Leicester and Thailand,” Somyot Poompanmoung, the FAT’s president and a former senior police official, told Asia Times. “There were so many projects that I can’t remember them all, but everything was to develop Thai football.”
There were so-called “fox hunts,” a search for talented young Thai players who would train with Leicester City’s academy. Indeed, some of the most poignant images of recent weeks were those of young players paying their respects to the temporary shrine erected at the crash site.
“These fox hunts were important and there were other scholarships and youth tournaments, too,” added Somyot. “He was to give one million footballs to kids in [Thai] schools. They will make 100 mini-football pitches in Thailand for seven-a-side games and there were many more.”
One such hunt discovered seven-year-old Suwin, also known as Nong Pee, who showed extraordinary kicking accuracy in a so-called cross-bar challenge. Leicester provided funding for his training and suggested he could win a place at its youth academy in the United Kingdom.
Somyot said he and Vichai often talked about how they could work together to faster develop Thai football. He said they had plans to send FAT staff to Leicester to improve their administration, marketing and medical skills. “We had arranged to meet in Bangkok this month to talk about this and have dinner,” he said.
Vichai’s duty-free retail company became a profitable giant after it was granted monopoly status in 2006 at the country’s busy airports. Thailand makes regular appearances in the top 10 lists of the world’s most-visited countries. That helped push the football-loving Vichai to become the fifth richest person in his homeland, according to personal wealth listings.
While the English Premier League and Leicester may be a huge step for Thai players who are only now starting to play overseas, King Power had bought a bridge to Europe in the shape of Belgian club Oh Leuven – a softer introduction to European football for aspiring Thai players than rough-and-tumble England.
“We talked about the club in Belgium before he bought it. He was looking for a space for Thai players in Europe that would be easier than England and other leagues.” Thailand international goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan is already in residence with the Belgian club.
King Power had also invested in smaller Thai clubs like Army United and brought coaches from the United Kingdom such as Matt Elliot, a former Scotland international, and then ex-England player Gary Stevens, to lend the benefit of their experience.
Vichai also made a difference in the murky world of Thailand’s football politics. Worawi Makudi had been the FAT’s general-secretary from 1996 to 2007 and then president after that.
But he had become deeply unpopular among fans due to corruption allegations surrounding the association. Worawi asserted his innocence, but was nonetheless suspended by the international governing body FIFA in 2015. Yet critics said he managed to maintain proxy control through an associate in the FAT’s 2016 election.
Somyot, a well-connected public figure in his own right, presented himself as reform-minded. When he ran for election to the position, he and his campaign team were notably all wearing Leicester City shirts with King Power’s logo emblazoned on the chest.
At the time, the team was starting to show they were genuine contenders for the English Premier League title and football fans in Bangkok had started to take notice.
“He was a friend and gave me a lot of good advice at the time. We always had good relations though he always tried to be fair to both sides,” Somyot said.
With Vichai’s passing, it remains to be seen what will happen to all of King Power’s football-promoting activities in Thailand, though Somyot is confident that Vichai’s son, Aiyawatt, will finish and continue what his father started.
“The projects will continue, definitely. I talked to his son and whatever his dad loved, whatever made his dad happy, he will continue,” Somyot said. “He will keep his dad’s vision.”