Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha: author of unlikely football fairytale

Oct 28. 2018
File photo : Vichai//Nation photo
File photo : Vichai//Nation photo
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By AFP

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London - Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai billionaire owner of Leicester City whose helicopter crashed Saturday outside the Premier League club's stadium, is the author of one of football's greatest fairytales.

Polo-loving Vichai, 61, endeared himself forever to Leicester fans by bringing the tiny club a league title in 2016, their first since the club was created in 1884.

It was a Premier League championship won against all the odds, one that put the central England city on the global sporting map and brought glory to generations of long-suffering fans.

Leicester City have been unable to reach quite the same meteoric heights since, finishing 12th in the subsequent season and ninth in 2017-18.

But it developed a sense of camaraderie among players and fans alike and a happy family atmosphere.

Jamie Vardy, the championship season's talismanic goal scorer, on Saturday tweeted a message that simply showed eight hands held together in prayer.

The bespectacled Thai tycoon is known for his an unerring common touch, dishing out free beer and doughnuts at Leicester's King Power Stadium, where he often lands his helicopter in the centre circle.

It was from there that his helicopter took off after Saturday's 1-1 draw with West Ham before crashing in the car park directly outside the stadium grounds.

Despite his popularity, Srivaddhanaprabha remains an enigmatic figure and rarely gives interviews, preferring to let his son, Aiyawatt, known as "Top", act as the family frontman.

He also rubs shoulders with celebrities and his surname, meaning "light of progressive glory," was bestowed by Thailand's late king Bhumibol Adulyadej.

"He (Vichai) is a successful businessman and he tried to challenge himself to get something done," Top, Leicester's vice-chairman, told AFP in Bangkok in 2016.

"He said, I think two or three years before, that he wants the team to be a success in the Premier League, and now we are."

- Power of karma -

The avuncular Srivaddhanaprabha has carefully navigated Thailand's treacherous political waters of recent years, while taking his King Power empire from strength to strength.

He established the company in 1989, starting with a single shop in Bangkok and building a multi-billion-dollar empire.

Leicester supporters quickly warmed to Srivaddhanaprabha after he bought the then second-tier Championship strugglers for an estimated 40 million pounds ($51 million, 45 million euros) in 2010.

The devout Buddhist is a firm believer in the power of karma, flying in Thai monks to bless Leicester's pitch and give their players lucky amulets.

And while pumping tens of millions of pounds into the team, club debt and infrastructure, Srivaddhanaprabha has spent judiciously.

Leicester's success was crafted from teamwork, endeavour, and hard work.

- Duty-free -

Srivaddhanaprabha rose from relative obscurity, flourishing during the last decade of political upheaval in Thailand, a country where big contracts follow political loyalties.

King Power hit the jackpot in 2006 when it won the duty-free concession at Bangkok's cavernous new Suvarnabhumi airport, and with it a captive market of tens of millions of travellers.

In 2007, a year after ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Manchester City's former owner, was dumped from office in a coup, Srivaddhanaprabha saw off legal moves to break his duty-free monopoly.

In a kingdom where connections count, Srivaddhanaprabha now firmly belongs to the royalist establishment that turfed out Thaksin. His family received its royal surname in 2013.

Before football, his first sporting love was polo, the sport beloved of the international elite, and both he and Top are accomplished players.

Srivaddhanaprabha boasts a lifetime membership at London's Ham Polo club, frequented by the British royals, and has a stable of horses and players on retainer in Bangkok.

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