Shouting out support for “Manchester United” or “Liverpool” is a common ruse used by tourist touts in Thailand to start a conversation with British holidaymakers – before luring them into a souvenir shop.
And with the rapid rise to the top echelons of the Premier League, they can finally add “Leicester City” to their lexicon. But in this case, Thais are saying it with pride.
The Thai duty free magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought the club in 2010 when they were struggling in the Championship. The self-made billionaire wanted to use Leicester to boost Thai brands and it may have been the best business decision he ever made.
While the streets of Bangkok are not completely draped in blue, Leicester City shirts are increasingly common. And on Thai-language football forums, the team are referred to as the “Siamese Foxes”. Vichai’s company, King Power, sells duty free at every major airport in Thailand and with its logo emblazoned across Jamie Vardy’s chest, it is now truly a global brand. But Vichai is credited for bringing a “Thainess” to the team, too, which many attribute to their roaring success.
In September 2014, the owner flew Buddhist monks in to bless the stadium and the players in the early days of their return to the Premier League. After the ritual, the team beat Manchester United 5-3, despite being two goals down in the game. “It was adorable,” said a Thai Manchester United fan, Tadsasorn Tangmatikul, of the monks’ trip. Leicester were her second favourite team, she added, “because it’s a Thai club.”
The Foxes’ triumph resonates with Thais, lovers of stories about winning against the odds. One of the country’s favourite rags to riches tales is literally about an underdog, a street mongrel called Copper who was rescued by King Bhumibol Adulyadej from an alley. Copper died late last year but lived her last days in regality and was the protagonist of a highly-successful animated film titled The Inspiration as well as several books, including one written and illustrated by the king.
Vichai’s son and club vice-chairman, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, said last month that Leicester have been run like a Thai family. “It’s the Thai culture. We give our time to the staff, the players, and to the manager. We try to manage it like a family, to listen to the problems of every single member of staff,” he said. “It’s the culture that we brought to the team.”
City’s starting lineup is not dissimilar to the one that struggled in their first Premier League season, evidence of the patience and steadfastness seen as a risk by other top teams that are criticised for buying, rather than nurturing, talent. Kitinan Sanguansak, assistant sports editor of the Thai daily newspaper The Nation, told the Observerthat this equanimity can be attributed to the Thai management style.
“Thainess has had some effect on the club,” he says. “It isn’t really culture – it’s about the habit of Thai people. Thais generally give people opportunity and time more than westerners.
“Last season, Leicester City were almost relegated but they didn’t sack the manager. They gave him a proper chance and time. Thais are also very understanding people.”
Yet the Thai owner’s understanding ran out shortly after the season ended when James Pearson, the son of the then manager Nigel, was filmed with two other players in a racist sex tape, and in which they made offensive comments during a visit to Bangkok. The three players were sacked and the manager was forced out shortly after.
The scandal was hugely embarrassing to the club and also unnerved Thailand, where local media coverage was muted compared to the UK press, wary of negative international attention. While there is a lively sex tourist industry in the south-east Asian nation, many in Thailand would prefer a more nuanced global reputation.
Leicester City have tried to maintain a positive image in Thailand, appointing the manager of the Thai national team and most beloved football figure as a brand ambassador. Known as Coach Zico, the sporting hero played 131 international matches in which he scored 70 goals, both records in Thailand.
The club even have a Thai-language YouTube channel, with videos showing the Foxes emblem with “Pride of Thais” underneath. The king’s portrait has been raised at the club and a Thai flag has been run up at the stadium. “Vichai is running the club with all seriousness … He didn’t take over to do things superficially. He didn’t buy the team just to make a name for himself,” says Kitinan.
Leicester have also managed to avoid the pratfalls of the other Thai owner of a British football club, the ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin bought Manchester City in 2007 but his critics said it was a publicity stunt to garner political support in Thailand and he was later criticised by the manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, who said he didn’t understand football.
When Eriksson later moved to Leicester shortly after it was bought by Vichai, he said: “Shinawatra was in politics. These aren’t,” praising King Power for investing in the club.
According to one Manchester United fan in Thailand, the support base is for the most part discerning, supporting Leicester for their brio rather than ownership. “If their style wasn’t entertaining, or if they were placid, Thais wouldn’t be cheering,” says Fai Jirenuwat. “It isn’t like when Thaksin took over Manchester City. There were many people following them just because they liked Thaksin.”
Perhaps by keeping a lower profile than Thaksin, Vichai has avoided too much media attention. When his office was approached for an interview, the Observer was told: “He is mostly not in town and I don’t have an idea when he will return.”
This article was written by Oliver Holmes, for The Observer on Saturday 13th February 2016 11.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010