By Maxmilian Wechsler
THE amazing rise of Leicester City Football Club to win the English Premier League (EPL) last season was one of the biggest sports stories of last year. It was the first time the club had won the league in its 133-year history, and it happened under the ownership of Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Chairman of King Power International Group.
You might think that in football-crazy Thailand this would be enough to make Leicester ‘Foxes’ the new people’s favourites, but most fans have chosen to stick with Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea.
The club did generate more support locally during their string of wins at the end of the 2014-2015 season. And it grew stronger during 2015-2016 fairytale season, but support seems to have mostly evaporated in the current season. There are a number of other reasons for this lack of popularity, including the loyalty of Thai fans to their traditional EPL favourites.
The failure to energise Thai fans can also be chalked up to the firing of the head coach Nigel Pearson and coach Claudio Ranieri. On top of that, there’s the club’s notorious inconsistency.
Thai football fans contacted by The BigChilli confirmed that Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are still the local favourites. Indeed, our unofficial poll shows that the first two clubs are about equally popular, with Chelsea in the third spot. With their long history of achievements – Manchester has won 20 English titles, Liverpool 18, and Chelsea five – it’s easy to see why.
For a newcomer in the EPL like the Foxes, it’s hard to break the mould and win over local fans. Although LCFC was established in 1844, its history isn’t terribly impressive. They were virtually unknown in Thailand until the club was bought by Vichai in August 2010.
Leicester was relegated from the Championship at the end of the 2007-2008 season to League One, the third tier of English football. They returned to the Championship in the 2008-2009 season under coach Nigel Pearson. In 2014 the club was promoted to the EPL after a 10-year absence.
The team seemed anchored to the bottom of the EPL towards the end of the 2014-2015 season, with relegation back to the Championship appearing inevitable, but thanks to Pearson and an incredible team effort they won seven of their last nine matches and ended up in 14th place. It was short of miraculous, and the club’s star burned even brighter the following season.
At the start of the 2015-2016 season, the Foxes were rated 5,000-1 to win the title. In the end, they topped the Premier League with 81 points, ten more than second place Arsenal. Leicester’s miracle season reportedly cost the bookies £25 million, the biggest payout and loss
in the history of English football.
Shortly before the start of the 2016-2017 season, Vichai bought a fleet of 19 royal blue BMW i8s, each costing £104,500, to reward players as well as then assistant coach Craig Shakespeare, who was later promoted to the top coaching job. According to the Mirror, the squad used 23 players during the season.
At the height of their glory, Leicester’s star was tarnished locally because of an incident during the team’s goodwill tour of Thailand in May 2015. Three players were caught on film with a group of prostitutes, but the sexual nature of the clip was less serious than the accompanying racist commentary from one of the players.
The incident caused lasting damage to the reputation of the team, especially in Thailand. At the end of May shocking footage was released by The Sunday Mirror showing Nigel Pearson’s son James naked in a Bangkok hotel room cavorting several women. Forward Tom Hopper and goalkeeper Adam Smith are also shown in flagrant. One of the players is heard calling a woman ‘slit eye’. The clip quickly went viral.
The three players issued an apology but were sacked on June 17. Only five weeks after his team’s remarkable turnaround, on June 30 Nigel Pearson also fell on his sword. A club statement said in part: “Regrettably, the club believes that the working relationship between Nigel and board is no longer viable. It has become clear that fundamental differences in perspective exist between us.”
Several public relation issues during the 2014-2015 season contributed to Pearson’s falling out of favour with the board even before the dismissal of his son. On December 2, 2014, Pearson was allegedly captured on video using totally inappropriate language at Leicester fans as tempers overheated during a 0-3 at-home defeat to Liverpool. On February 7, 2015, Pearson grabbed Crystal Palace player James McArthur on the touchline near the end of another home game that Leicester lost.
Finally, during a post-match news conference at King Power stadium after his team lost to Chelsea 1-3 on April 29, 2015, Pearson launched a much-publicised verbal assault on British journalist Ian Baker, calling him an “ostrich” as well as “stupid” and “daft”.
Despite Pearson’s mishaps and the incident involving his son, his dismissal shocked many people. Former Leicester and England striker and now sports broadcaster Gary Lineker OBE said: “So, after not only getting Leicester promoted but pulling off the most miraculous escape in Premier League history, Pearson is sacked. Those who run football never cease to amaze me with their stupidity.”
‘Fake fans’ line victory parade route
After winning the EPL under new coach Claudio Ranieri, the Foxes returned to Bangkok in May 2016 on a victory tour. As might be expected, the players were on their best behaviour, but closing city streets for the open-top bus carrying the club owner, players and officials through central Bangkok on Thursday, May 19, didn’t go down well with Bangkok motorists.
Many fans were disappointed that stars like Riyad Mahrez, Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy, the club’s top scorer in the 2015-2016 season with 14 goals, didn’t show up in Bangkok.
Photos in the Leicester Mercury and other media showed a massive traffic pile-up behind the Leicester bus. The route of the parade was decorated with blue flags and lined with people wearing blue Leicester shirts. There were some discrepancies in the number of fans reportedly on hand for the parade. Headlines in British media said the crowd was in the thousands to cheer the team, which the Guardian called ‘Siamese Foxes’.
The club’s website added an “s” to “million” in its headline on May 20, 2016: “Millions line streets of Bangkok for Leicester City Champions parade.” The caption under the photo reads: “Leicester City’s place in the hearts of the Thai people was spectacularly displayed on Thursday afternoon as MILLIONS turned out for an open-top bus parade in Bangkok.”
Some media reports claimed that fans were recruited by the club, paid and coached on how to welcome the team. A BBC correspondent in Bangkok posted a photo on his Facebook page dated May 19 showing Foxes fans before the parade, with this comment: “Hired cheerleaders rehearsing b4 Leicester parade in Bangkok.”
In a May 27 article, The Sun proclaimed: “Fake fans paid to cheer Leicester City during Bangkok victory parade,” with a sub-head reading: “Thai King Power employees paid £10 to attend the parade.” The article goes on to say that thousands of Thais were paid to pose as Leicester City fans and that many there had responded to a social media advert offering 500 baht.
According to the article, the hired fans were asked to meet at the Bangkok HQ of King Power, where they were given free club T-shirts and urged to clap and chant during the celebration. Another media source alleged that participation at the parade was mandatory for King Power employees.
Since the start of the 2016-2017 season, Leicester’s fortunes have been on a downward spiral. During a televised game on February 12, 2017, the Thai owner was shown shaking his head in disbelief at the miserable performance from his highly paid players. There was plenty of blame to go around, with much of it landing on the shoulders of Ranieri.
The club issued a statement on February 7, 2017, designed to “make absolutely clear its unwavering support for its first team manager.” Only 16 days later Ranieri was told he had been dismissed. Club vice-chairman Aiyawat Srivaddhanaprabha called it “the most difficult decision we have had to make in nearly seven years since King Power took ownership of Leicester City.”
Vichai said that Ranieri’s “warmth, charm and charisma have helped transform perceptions of the club and develop its profile on a global scale. We will forever be grateful to him for what he has helped us to achieve.”
Fans and media voiced support for Ranieri, who in January 2017 was awarded Best FIFA Men’s Coach. He has been portrayed mostly as a good man and good coach who was treated badly by the club and its owner. Football icon Lineker said: “I shed a tear last night for Claudio, for football and for my club … Personally, I think they should be building statues to him, not sacking him.”
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, who wore Ranieri’s initials on his shirt, said that the Leicester players were “selfish.” He was referring to rumours alleging that some key Foxes players had plotted to get Ranieri removed. Other rumours claimed that someone in the coaching staff or even higher up wanted him out.
After learning of his dismissal, Ranieri said his “dream has died”. CNN also reported: “In a statement issued through the League Managers’ Association, Ranieri said: ‘After the euphoria of last season and being crowned Premier League champions all I dreamt of was staying with Leicester City, the club I love, for always. Sadly this was not to be.
“No one can ever take away what we together have achieved, and I hope you think about it and smile every day the way I always will,” he added. “It was a time of wonderfulness and happiness that I will never forget. It’s been a pleasure and an honour to be a champion with all of you.”
Coached by Shakespeare in the first game after Ranieri’s dismissal on February 27, the team played excellent football defeating Liverpool 3-1 at home. Vardy scored twice. In the “miraculous” transformation, the team won following four EPL matches in a row.
Some speculated that certain players had previously been playing badly on purpose to make Ranieri look bad. Maybe the five wins in one go were the proof. What is certain is that the Foxes performances have much improved.
Ranieri had kept quiet until he gave an interview with the Sky on April 10. “I can’t believe my players killed me,” he said. “No, no, no. Maybe it was someone behind me. I had a little problem the year before and we won the title. Maybe this year, when we lose, these people will push a little more.”
In another interview, the 65-year-old Ranieri refused to identify who was pushing him out. “I don’t want to say who it is. I am a loyal man. What I had to say, I said face to face.” During an interview on BBC Sports website that appeared on April 12, Shakespeare denied having any problems with Ranieri.