Brian White stood quietly outside the King Power Stadium, holding back tears as he looked out across the thousands of flowers, T-shirts, flags and handmade notes that covered every inch of the pavement around the front half of the complex.
Not far from where he stood a helicopter carrying Leicester City football club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha had crashed two weeks ago as it lifted off the ground after the Foxes' home game. Investigators are still trying to figure out what happened, but everyone on board – Srivaddhanaprabha, the pilot, co-pilot and two team officials – died instantly. The accident has shaken this working-class city in the East Midlands where Srivaddhanaprabha, a Thai billionaire, is considered a hero for transforming the soccer club from a debt-ridden also-ran into the champions of the English Premier League. Now as the team faces its first home game since the crash on Saturday, coaches, players and fans are bracing for an unprecedented outpouring of emotion.
“There will be a lot of tears,” said White, 66, a season-ticket holder who also travels to almost every away game. He’s similar to many people in Leicester: a retired textile worker who started going to City games as a child with his father and now takes his children and grandchildren to matches. He’s seen owners come and go, but none were like Srivaddhanaprabha. “He was the best. Everything he did was top class. Everything was terrific.”
Srivaddhanaprabha, 60, was a rare breed in the sports world; super-rich, someone who forged a deep connection to a hard-scrabble part of Britain, despite that he barely spoke English and rarely gave interviews. He endeared himself to fans by handing out free beer on his birthday, subsidizing buses to away games and making generous donations to the local hospital and university. He attended nearly every home game, flying in on a helicopter from his British base outside London and mingling with fans long after the final whistle.
He’d made his billions in Thailand from a chain of duty-free shops called King Power and became fascinated with English soccer during a trip to London in 1997 when he watched Leicester play in the League Cup final. After buying the club in 2010 for £39-million ($66.8-million), he paid off a pile of debt, took over the stadium and promised beleaguered fans promotion to the Premier League. And just for good measure he had Buddhist monks bless the stadium and the team.
It all seemed far-fetched at first, but the momentum began building. Leicester made it to the top division in 2014 after years of dwelling in the lower rungs of English soccer and nearly collapsing into insolvency. The team hung on the following season, staving off relegation in the final few games. And then in 2016, a miracle. The Foxes overcame 5,000-to-1 odds and won the title, defeating the titans of Manchester and London without any real superstars and only a fraction of the payroll. “It’s one of the biggest things in sporting history,” said construction worker Michael Barkham, a diehard Leicester fan who came to the stadium on Thursday to pay his respects to the owner. “It’s just unheard of, especially in this day and age. I don’t think it will ever happen again to be honest.”
Joan Stevens just shook her head at the memory of that glorious season. “It was just amazing, you just can’t describe it,” she said standing outside the stadium. Nodding over to a giant picture of Srivaddhanaprabha that hung above the flowers, she added: “It was all him. He rescued them.”
The club is planning a host of tributes to Srivaddhanaprabha during Saturday’s game against Burnley, including a video celebration of his life and commemorative badges and scarves for every fan. There are also plans for a statue of Srivaddhanaprabha. The players will wear shirts in his honour during the game and one group of fans has organized a “Walk for Vichai,” a march from the city’s downtown to the stadium that’s expected to draw up to 20,000 people. “We didn’t expect that many to begin with, but once the ball got rolling it just escalated,” said James Bone, one of the walk’s organizers. Srivaddhanaprabha “meant a lot to a lot of people.”
City manager Claude Puel said keeping players focused on the game won’t be easy. The crash has hit the team hard, especially players such as striker Jamie Vardy and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel who were on the title-winning team. Most of the club headed to Thailand last weekend for Srivaddhanaprabha’s funeral and only returned on Tuesday. The team has responded well so far on the field, winning 1-0 at Cardiff last Saturday in the first game since the crash. But returning home will be different and there’s still some uncertainty about the club’s future, although Srivaddhanaprabha’s son, Aiyawatt, has promised to carry on his father’s legacy. “It’s not easy,” Puel said on Thursday. “On the pitch, we have to show our character, to honour our chairman, it’s the most important thing.”
On Saturday as fans head into the stadium,they’ll walk past a stack of messages and tributes to Srivaddhanaprabha. One note, written on a white T-shirt and left outside the stadium last week, seemed to capture just how the city feels. “Thank you for giving us the greatest days of our lives,” it said. “And thank you for making every football fan in the world smile.”