The FA Cup holds an almost mystical appeal in south-east Asia. Now a Thai family have rewritten its history, as well as the destiny of unfashionable Leicester City
If you ever spent time in South East Asia in the month of May you would know that there was one match that had almost mystical appeal. It would be broadcast from London and hold an audience well past midnight – and was rooted in Asian males, and later females, far more than any League or even the Champions League.
It is, of course, the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium.
Last Saturday’s final, the 140th, was won for the first time in their history by Leicester City. I am tempted to say that the Foxes, have the best owner in football. He, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, inherited ownership the night his father Vichai died when his helicopter crashed and burned after takeoff from the Leicester pitch three years ago.
It was the business brain, the vision, but also love is not too strong a word, that made Srivaddhanaprabha, the father, rescue an insolvent Leicester and turn it into a team, a club, that could compete with anyone. Leicester winning the Premier League under Vichai’s patronage was unquestionably what rattled the owners from Real Madrid to Juventus to the so-called “Big Six” in England to try to form their ill-thought European Super League this Spring.
Leicester winning the English league in 2016 at odds of 5000 to one was about as likely as the Second Coming of Elvis Presley. Yet Khun Vichai (Mr Vichai) which was how the City players addressed him, told everyone from the start that Europe was his aim for Leicester. And The FA Cup. And not on a one-off basis.
“There is one person who did see where the club could go and that was Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha,” goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel said in a BBC radio interview before the Cup final. “He said to me the day I signed: ‘We’ll be in the Champions League within five years.’ We were in The Championship (second division) at the time! He saw it, he had the ambition and he backed it up, and the family are still backing it up.”
Not only did Schmeichel make a couple of remarkable saves at Wembley that his own father, Peter the Great Dane of Manchester United would have counted amongst his own finest, but the Leicester keeper put his finger firmly on the issue of owners who are so blatantly in it only for the money. Schmeichel Jr. said: “Because of what’s happened in these last few weeks, you see how unhappy fans are with owners of clubs.” However, he said, “It is time to recognise the Srivaddhanaprabha ownership. It is also a time to praise the owners, because look at what can happen when you run a club properly, when you come in and you don’t just treat it as a business.
“The business side has to run, but also treat it as a passion project – it is something you enjoy; you come to games, you interact with fans.”
Kasper Schmeichel, now a winner of both the English Premier League and the FA Cup, was raised in the house of a world-famous goalkeeper. He is now due recognition in his own right, as a player and as a man.
Three years back, he had to be restrained from trying to enter the flaming wreckage of the chairman’s helicopter. On Saturday, he left the field shortly after the medals presentation to physically, but gently, usher Aiyawatt ‘Khun Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha, the son and now head of both the family duty-free airport business chain and of Leicester, down onto the grass to hold the trophy.
Aiyawatt is 35. Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Jamie Vardy, Marc Albrighton and Christian Fuchs, players who have won the two prizes no Leicester team ever expected to win in the 137-year history of the club, are in the same age range as their chairman. And it showed as this most unpretentious of proprietors hugged them one by one – regardless of so-called Covid bubbles, or rank or favour.
Finally, the young owner hugged the Cup and raised a finger to the Heavens. You can write such a story, but you could not make it up.
I did wonder what N’Golo Kanté and Ben Chilwell, who left Leicester to better their prospects of silverware and their fortunes at Chelsea thought as they watched this scene play out. The East Midlands club had no option, unless they deprived players of moves they clearly wanted, but to bank the £77 million for that pair, and as much again for Harry Maguire who joined Manchester United.
Bank and recycle into new talent, for example Youri Tielemans, the young Belgian whose wonderful goal won the day at Wembley. Not the least of the Thai ownership has been to build, and rebuild, team and team spirit. But there have been other astute investments, for example, £100 million to build a state-of-the-art training centre not just for the present team to improve themselves, but to incubate future generations of “Foxes” through the youth academy.
Yes, the Srivaddhanaprabha family promote their King Power business through the naming rights to the Leicester stadium. Yes, Khun Vichai understood from the beginning that a lot of goodwill can be bought through the popularity football has generated in the Far East and beyond.
But the emotion, the time the father spent and now the son spends in their English club and the Leicester community cannot be fake – or dressed up in public relations. “My Dad made Leicester City into a family,” his son and heir said after the helicopter tragedy. “I received a very big mission and legacy to pass on, and I intend to do that.”
Mission accomplished, twice over and so far. You have little doubt that this legacy is a two-way process, and that the owner and the club are mutual beneficiaries.
You just wonder if the gang of club owners who tried, and will try again, to make European football a closed shop for their own profits learned anything from Wembley Stadium last weekend.
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