HE’S got one of the longest, if not awkward, footballing names. But Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is probably the most popular Asian sporting brand in England.
He came out of nowhere when he bought unfashionable Leicester in 2010 for £39m, cleared their debts and saw the club win promotion to the top flight four years later. Then in one of the most sensational sporting tales of this generation, he beat the impossible odds of 5,000-1 to claim for the Foxes (Leicester’s nickname) the Premier League title in 2015-16.
But the fourth-richest man in Thailand, worth an estimated US$3.8bn (£2.9bn), Srivaddhanaprabha, the soft-spoken Chairman of duty-free company King Power International Group, is no more.
This week, funeral rites are conducted in Bangkok after his tragic accident on October 27.
The 61-year-old was blown to bits in the fiery climax of a helicopter crash, with two members of his staff, the pilot and a passenger when the helicopter crashed moments after taking off from the King Power Stadium after a Leicester City home match.
The global sporting world moaned the loss of the billionaire, benefactor and architect of Leicester’s fairytale story and the entire Leicester City players and officials flew to Bangkok over the weekend for the final salute.
One exemplary example of his big-heartedness was at the end-of-season awards after Leicester’s remarkable Premier League title victory in 2016, when the players, staff and invited guests were all celebrating. But the room erupted when an announcement was made that Srivaddhanaprabha had just donated £1m to the nearby Royal Leicester Infirmary.
“There was a massive transformation of both his profile and image with the extraordinary success Leicester saw in 2016, No Asian has ever made such a rip-roaring impact his way,” says BBC South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head. “His commitment to the club is beyond dispute.
Srivaddhanaprabha – who was ethnic Chinese – had four children, all of whom had been involved in the King Power company, which Head says is the “typical” model for a Chinese family-run business.
“He never gave interviews,” adds Head. “So although much loved in Leicester, he remained something of an enigma.” “He loved living in the UK and loved the lifestyle his enormous wealth could bring, He was often seen with British royalty, taking part with his sons in polo contests. He really adored the high life of elite society in Britain.”
Head said Srivaddhanaprabha’s reputation both in Britain and Thailand as a “generous donator” to “high-profile community projects” resulted in him being recognised by Thai royalty.
“It’s very typical of large businesses who have such a hold on lucrative parts of the Thailand economy. They’re almost expected to give back to charities – particularly connected to the royal family. He was given the enormous status of a royally bestowed name about seven years ago.
“He was the fourth-wealthiest man here in Thailand and – in a country where you have some extreme wealth – that’s a hell of a position to have achieved for a man who only started his company back in 1989.”
Srivaddhanaprabha would fly up for Leicester’s home games in his helicopter from his property in London – or his other house in Berkshire, where he kept his horses – then return the same way. He would also fly over Thai Buddhist monks to bless the players before games to bring the team good luck!
Leicester City Supporters Club chairman Cliff Ginetta said: “The family is very, very popular with the people of Leicester. They are loved by the Leicester public for what they have done to the football club and for what they have done for the city.
“They have put the city on the map worldwide. They’ve put millions of pounds into the club and lots and lots of money into local hospitals, children’s care. At Christmas time, it’s free mince pies and a drink – and that’s the way they are.”
“In the past 10 days the local council approved a new £100m training ground to be developed. The chairman was the saviour of the football club and taken it to heights no-one expected.”
The family rarely spoke publicly, but in an interview with BBC in 2016, Srivaddhanaprabha’s son, Aiyawatt, opened up on what the success had meant to them.
“Is it a miracle? It is. It is inspirational and people talk about it. We set the standard of the sport and inspiration for the whole world,” he said. “It is not just for the sport, it is life. If people use Leicester as the standard now, if they fight, they try – then they can achieve one day. Everything has to be right as well.
“It is a miracle for the city, it is a miracle for the players – but we have a job to do. They worked hard to be in this position. It is not just lucky.”
RIP Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. The man from the “Land of Smiles” with a very big heart who made heads turn in world football.
Now in his memory, there will be plenty of people who will spell and worship one of the longest, if not most awkward, footballing names. Indeed, at Leicester he will long continue to be the most popular Asian sporting brand in England. – BY SURESH NAIR
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based sports journalist who has covered global football for four decades.