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29th Oct 2018

Leicester’s sorrow over Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s death unites city with his Thai homeland

John Duerden

“We are just sitting here waiting for news,” the wife of Thailand football legend Kiatisuk ‘Zico’ Senamuang wrote on social media, alongside a photo of a Leicester City scarf and mug. “Whatever happens, we will be together.”

She was talking about her husband. Zico had gone to England with a team of young Thai players to train and watch Leicester take on West Ham United in the English Premier League on Saturday. He returned back to his hotel by bus, safe and sound.

Despite all the messages of hope and prayer coming from Thai fans, players and clubs on social media, compatriot Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was not so fortunate. The Leicester City owner and CEO of Thai duty free retail giant King Power was one of five killed as his helicopter crashed in the stadium’s car park just moments after taking off from the centre of the pitch following the Foxes’ 1-1 draw with West Ham.

“We can’t believe what has happened,” Zico said on Sunday as he returned to the King Power Stadium, named after the billionaire’s company that took over the club in 2010. “This is terrible news.”

Thailand’s best-ever player and the national team’s most successful head coach summed up the sombre mood in a Land of Smiles that spent all of Sunday digesting what had happened in England and hoping that, somehow, there would be survivors while knowing that the chances were slim.

Vichai and what he had achieved with Leicester has been a source of pride in the country and his death has been greeted by profound sadness.

“I don’t know if every Thai became a fan of Leicester,” said Sirichai Boonnark of Bangkok, who actually did start to follow the Foxes during Vichai’s tenure. “But it is true that everyone, or everyone who has any interest in football, knows how Leicester are doing and are interested. Even those who are not interested in football were proud of what happened in 2016.”

That was when Leicester defied odds of 5,000 to 1 to win the Premier League title. In those months leading up to the triumph, the Thai media regularly reprinted images of English tabloid back pages, in contrast to Sunday when they showed the front pages.

“In Thailand many fans follow Liverpool and Manchester United and other European teams,” added Boonnark. “Many are waiting for the day when we can see a Thai player play in the Premier League and become a worldwide star. We have not done that yet and that is one reason why Leicester was special. This was a Thai making one of the biggest ever stories in football happen and that was something special and that is why people feel very sad after the news.”

I was in Bangkok in 2016 and watched Leicester defeat Liverpool 2-0 on February 2 in a local bar that still had more red-shirted followers in it. That win seemed to mark the time when Thai fans and media seemed to believe that the Premier League was actually possible.

For the next few days, Jamie Vardy’s two goals were shown time and time again and conversations regarding the team’s chances could be heard all over the place. Leaving the country shortly after, it seemed that sales of Leicester shirts in the King Power Duty Free outlets at Suvarnabhumi Airport were going rather well and then in May, Thailand celebrated the title win.

The publicity-shy Vichai loved to pose with the Premier League trophy. The club had achieved what he wanted: it put King Power, Leicester City and Thai football on the map. In return fans in Leicester held their owner in high esteem as they not only lifted the title but reached the last eight of the UEFA Champions League the following season. These were heady times but not only in England.

“What he did for football in Thailand was not just about Leicester, there was much more that he did,” the president of the Thailand Football Association (FAT) Somyot Poompanmoung told “He was a big supporter of Thai football too. King Power helped bring foreign coaches to Thailand to help develop our own football.”

Whether it was helping Thai Premier League clubs bring in coaches such as Matt Elliott, the Leicester City legend, and ex-Tottenham Hotspur star Gary Stevens, or arranging international youth tournaments in the country, King Power were active in their homeland too.

“He was very passionate about football in Leicester and Thailand,” Somyot added. “We were in close contact and were discussing a number of projects that would help football here.”

Somyot was not only a friend but a political ally of Vichai in a football scene where such things are important. King Power was an influential supporter of the former police chief in 2016 as he ran for the post of FAT president. It was a bitter campaign following the suspension of controversial long-serving chief Worawi Makudi. Somyot ran against Worawi’s proxy in a vote overseen by a FIFA-appointed normalisation committee.

The support of King Power and the family made a difference; helping the new man to present himself as the candidate for reform and modernity. When I interviewed Somyot in Bangkok just days before the election, he and his team were all wearing Leicester shirts.

“Many people complained about the old system but Vichai was one who helped to bring change. We are improving in football in many different ways and he played his part. We can’t believe what has happened and Thailand football will miss him. I will miss him too as he was my good friend,” Somyot said.

The president was on a plane to England just hours after hearing about the crash. There were many more in Thailand who wished they could do the same and pay their respects to a man who did so much for football in Leicester and his homeland.