Devoted soccer fans mourn death of Leicester City owner

Updated October 28, 2018 - 3:36 pm

LEICESTER, England — Thai billionaire and Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who died when his helicopter crashed in a parking lot next to the soccer club’s stadium, was known to fans as a smiling, benevolent man who gave away free beers and hot dogs on his birthday and brought the club its fairytale English Premier League title in 2016. He was 60.

The business world remembers Vichai as the retail entrepreneur who started with one shop and grew Thailand’s massive King Power duty-free chain.

The sight of his personal helicopter taking off from the middle of the field — to take Vichai to his English base near London in Berkshire — was a regular feature after Leicester’s home games. On Saturday evening, it turned into a horror scene when the chopper appeared to suddenly lose power, plummeting to the ground in a parking lot outside the empty stadium and bursting into flames.

The crash sparked emotional scenes in Leicester, the East Midlands city whose devoted soccer fans will forever be grateful to Vichai for bankrolling not only the club’s first title in the world’s foremost soccer league, but one of the most incredible stories in world sports history.

Leicester, only two years after being promoted from England’s second-tier league, was a 5,000-to-1 shot to win the Premier League at the start of the 2015-16 season. But after Vichai brought in veteran Italian manager Claudio Ranieri at the start of the campaign, the Foxes produced a stunning season. They lost only three of their 38 games, to win the title by a comfortable 10-point margin, ahead of far more illustrious rivals Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Manchester United.

Though his public comments were limited, Leicester’s ever-smiling chairman became a talisman of the campaign, watching on from his seat in the stadium at home games beside his son, Aiyawatt, the club’s vice chairman.

While many foreign owners have been viewed with suspicion by their English club’s fans — for reasons such as a lack of respect for supporters or their club’s traditions — Vichai was held in the highest regard by the Leicester faithful. They showed it during one match late in that 2015-16 season, when their title was secured, with the 32,000-strong King Power Stadium crowd rising to give their chairman an emotional and spontaneous standing ovation.

Vichai became known for his generosity around the club. When Leicester narrowly avoided the threat of relegation to the second tier at the end of 2014-15, he sent “bottle after bottle” of champagne to the dressing room, according to British media reports. He also treated fans in the stadium to a free Thai Singha beer at the end of successful campaigns.

Vichai bought Leicester for 39 million pounds ($50 million) in 2010. After the club’s turnaround, it is now valued at 371 million pounds ($476 million), according to Forbes.

Such a transformation was in keeping with Vichai’s success in the business world, after starting his duty-free interests from modest beginnings.

In 1989, he was granted a license to open Thailand’s first downtown duty-free store. Expansion into Thai airports followed, with King Power ultimately granted a monopoly for duty-free stores at all the country’s main airports.

Today the King Power empire is worth 3.8 billion pounds ($4.88 billion), according to Forbes, with Vichai having been the fifth-richest person in Thailand.

His family’s empire also included Accor’s Pullman hotels in Thailand, and a $226 million stake, bought in 2016, in the country’s biggest budget airline, Thai AirAsia. Last year, Vichai also enlarged his soccer interests, buying Belgian second-tier club Oud-Heverlee Leuven.

Vichai’s rise in business did not happen without some drama.

The granting of King Power’s monopoly status at Thailand’s airports — set in motion in 2004 by the government of since-ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — caused some controversy.

And this year, King Power has defended itself against a lawsuit lodged by a former anti-graft official alleging it had not paid the government its due share of revenue from its airport franchise. King Power has denied the allegation. While Thailand’s main corruption court threw the case out last month, an appeal is reportedly likely.

Aside from business and soccer, Vichai quickly became a noted polo devotee in England, playing on occasion with Princes Charles and William. He spent millions establishing his polo team, the King Power Foxes, which began in 2014 and has enjoyed success at the top levels of competition in the U.K.

A devout Buddhist who had monks bless the King Power Stadium regularly for good luck, Vichai and his wife, Aimon Srivaddhanaprabha, had four children.

He was born Vichai Raksriaksorn, but in 2012, the king of Thailand recognized his achievements by bestowing on his family their new surname, which means “light of progressive glory.”

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