11 July 2024

“This puts football into perspective”. A famous line among those involved in the world’s most popular sport when a human tragedy strikes has to do with the fact that there are more important things in life than football. When Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is concerned, however, the saying is peculiar at least and borders on irony at most.

When football is put into perspective, Vichai’s life, taken away swiftly on Saturday in a helicopter crash, has been elevated to a legendary status. He will be remembered in a folklore that has little to do with something he spent much of his life on. The duty-free empire that took him decades to build is secondary when people talk about the man. It’s football that he will be forever associated with, although it is doubtful he knew the exact tactical difference between, say, the 4-4-2 and 4-3-1-2 formations.

Vichai was directly involved in one of the modern-day biggest football fairytales, overseeing the most unimaginable rise of a club he had bought to the English Premier League title just a few years ago. Leicester City’s immense success drastically changed global views on football. Before he came along and spent wisely on players’ development and transfers, the overriding belief in the sport was that only big spenders like Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus can win league titles in their respective countries.

Football is familiar with fairytales, but they often come in knock-out matches. Winning a league requires consistency as much as excellence, and luck plays a far lesser part in the success. Under Vichai’s guidance, Leicester City proved to be consistently marvelous, and they defied the obscenely expensive football management in the process.

But not only have Leicester City proudly made a mockery of a 5,000-1 odds on their way to the Premier League trophy in 2016, the club almost reached another height in the following year, passing the group stage of the European Champions League to the knockout stage. Experts lauded the players and their coaching staff, but Vichai’s loving and caring patriarchy did not go unnoticed. He was well adored by players and people of Leicester always expressed their deep gratitude toward him.

“I’m struggling for words,” tweeted Jamie Vardy, the English striker who came from nobody to a superstar status under Vichai’s reign. Kasper Schmeichel, goalkeeper and another star player of Leicester City, was reportedly in tears on learning of the helicopter crash. Football fans including those supporting other clubs brought flowers, jerseys and other memorabilia to the Kingpower Stadium.

In England, he was described as a man of genuine generosity. It is not easy for football club owners to get such tributes. Even the owner of Manchester United was always accused of reaping gains from the brand and not giving back enough in return. A viral tweet by @SkyNews, followed by 4.7 million people, said Vichai was loved “because of his deeds, not his words.” The Liverpool Football Club is among those paying tributes, including sport programmes in England and many parts of the world.

After the Premier League glory, Vichai gifted 19 players a BMW i8. His initiative of using a senior Thai monk to bless the team was one of the major topics related to Leicester City’s success on the pitch. In May, 2017, he bought his second football club, OH Leuven in Belgium, a much more low-profile team whose performance has not been eye-catching.

Schmeichel wrote an open letter to the club owner in which he expressed his admiration for him “as a leader, as a father and as a man”.”It is difficult to put into words how much you have meant to this football club and to the city of Leicester,” he said. Many of Leicester’s players referred to Vichai affectionately as ‘The Boss’.

“I cannot believe this is happening. I am so totally devastated and heartbroken. I just cannot believe what I saw last night. It just doesn’t seem real!” wrote Schmeichel, whose statement summed up the feelings of the people of Leicester including those not associated with football. Vichai took good care of not just the club, but community facilities as well.

“You cared so deeply for not just the club but for the entire community. Your endless contribution to Leicester’s hospitals and charities will never be forgotten. You went above and beyond in every aspect,” Schmeichel said.

While football is shedding its tears, Vichai’s business life was not always glorious, although his empire has been growing astronomically. In fact, he was in a business that is plagued with deplorable practices, charges of nepotism, legal issues and maybe dangerous rivalry.

Vichai was born Vichai Raksriaksorn on April 4, 1958, into a Thai-Chinese family. He was married to Aimon Srivaddhanaprabha with whom he had four children. The surname Srivaddhanaprabha was bestowed on the family in 2012 by late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He was awarded an honorary doctorate as a Doctor of Laws by the University of Leicester in 2016.

He was the founder and CEO of King Power Duty Free and ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the richest persons in Thailand, reportedly worth US$3.3 billion. The Leicester City Football Club was purchased in 2010 and a year later, its “Walkers” arena was renamed the “King Power Stadium”.

King Power began in late 1980s, operating a downtown duty-free shop and the company was to grow exponentially. In 1995, it received a concession to run duty free shops at the Don Muang Airport. Two years later, another right was acquired to operate duty free business in a mega store in the middle of the city. In 2004, the Thaksin government awarded the Suvarnabhumi Airport duty-free concession to the group.

The business empire has continued to blossom despite being plagued with criticism of preferential treatment by people in power and alleged monopolistic practices. As of 2016, King Power operated branches at Suvarnabhumi, Don Muang, Phuket, Chiang Mai and Hat Yai airports. Vichai was very close to the top echelon of the Thai media and well connected socially. He sponsored trips to Leicester for dozens of Thais to celebrate the Premier League trophy.

Just recently, King Power was beset with legal trouble that could possibly threaten ownership of Leicester City. The company was accused of massively short-changing the Thai government regarding the Suvarnabhumi duty free business. The firm insisted it was a contract dispute, but the issue interested Premier League watchers, who were aware of rules on legally troubled ownership. The legal dispute is still on-going.

In his spare time, Vichai was said to be an avid polo player. He owned a polo club in Thailand and was president of a polo club in London for four years ending 2012. His passion for sports appeared quite genuine, although buying European football clubs has been quite fashionable among exotic billionaires in recent years.

Due to the tragedy, Leicester City and King Power are getting worldwide attention again. His contributions to the sport are competing with less favorable rumours. He has become a Leicester legend, no matter what, and football is getting fresh perspectives whatever comes next.  — By ThaiPBS World