It’s a sad day for football. The beloved owner of Leicester City Football Club died in a helicopter crash on Saturday near the club’s stadium in Leicester, England, the club said Sunday.
Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, 60, was one of five people on board the aircraft when it burst into flames after crashing in a parking lot next to King Power Stadium, the club said. No one on board survived.
“It is with the deepest regret and a collective broken heart that we confirm our chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, was among those to have tragically lost their lives on Saturday evening when a helicopter carrying him and four other people crashed outside King Power Stadium.”
The statement from Leicester City described the chairman as “a man of kindness, of generosity and a man whose life was defined by the love he devoted to his family and those he so successfully led.”
Srivaddhanaprabha’s helicopter was a familiar sight at the Leicester stadium, landing in the middle of the pitch to ferry its owner to and from home games. The crash occurred about an hour after Leicester City’s match against West Ham on Saturday night. Witnesses said the helicopter had barely cleared the 25 metre high stadium walls before making a loud noise, crashing to the ground and igniting in a large fireball. Distraught fans set up a makeshift memorial for the owner before official confirmation that he was on the flight.
As day broke on Sunday, a shirt adorned with the badges of Leicester City and Oud-Heverlee Leuven – the Belgian second-division team also owned by Srivaddhanaprabha – was propped up against the King Power Stadium, along with a framed picture of the Hindu deity Ganesh and a handful of flowers.
On a bitterly cold day, people of all ages – some pushing babies in pushchairs – flocked to the stadium to lay scarves, flowers and Buddha statues outside the ground. Those scarves weren’t just the blue and white of Leicester City. There were West Ham, Liverpool and Aston Villa scarves as well as a Sporting Lisbon one.
“We witnessed a miracle,” said Leicester fan Sam Tewley, 31, as he reflected on the unlikelihood of Leicester winning the Premier League in 2016 under Srivaddhanaprabha’s ownership. He noted the goodwill Srivaddhanaprabha built through charitable acts, including a $2.5 million donation to Leicester’s hospitals. “He has brought the city together,” Tewley said. “He did something to this city that changed the mindset. Walking around the town centre in 2016 everyone was so happy.”
Russell Bentley, who works as a volunteer for The Street Pastors initiative, arrived late in the morning at the stadium to help congregating supporters and said he would stay until he “wasn’t needed anymore.” He also credited Srivaddhanaprabha with reversing the team’s fortunes. “It looked touch and go for Leicester City at one stage,” Bentley said. “The club was in administration and he came in, bought it all, paid off all the debts. Not just took it over because it was a cash cow, but because he wanted to be part of the Leicester support.”
A ‘major incident’
The confirmation came one day after Leicester City released a short statement saying that it was assisting police with a “major incident” near the stadium. As images and video spread online of flames leaping from the crash site, Leicestershire Police set up a cordon at the end of the stadium where the crash took place. The UK government’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch published a statement that it would be sending a “team of inspectors” to the stadium to investigate the crash.
Srivaddhanaprabha bought the club for $57 million in 2010 and it was promoted to the Premier League in 2014. In 2016, the club achieved the once-unthinkable feat of winning the premiership. It went into the 2015-2016 season with odds of 5,000-1 to win but stunned fans, and bookmakers, by taking the title.
The club’s extraordinary run of success played out under Srivaddhanaprabha’s ownership. Along with handing fans their first top-flight title in the club’s history, the businessman won over fans by handing out free beer, water and cupcakes, as well as scarves in cold weather, in the stands.
The Thai was No. 388 on the Forbes’ billionaires list, with a net worth of $4.9 billion. He made his fortune through the creation of the King Power chain of duty-free stores, Thailand’s largest. Srivaddhanaprabha’s company sponsors the team’s stadium.
Loved by the people
The loss was felt acutely by Leicester players. Striker Jamie Vardy’s Instagram post paid a heartfelt tribute to Srivaddhanapraba:
Defender Harry Maguire also posted an emotional tweet:
Soon after the match ended, West Ham tweeted: “The thoughts of all at West Ham United are with everybody at Leicester City at this time.”
Some of its players also extended their sympathies:
Broadcaster and former Leicester City player Gary Lineker also tweeted, saying that his emotion made hosting the BBC’s flagship football show Match of the Day difficult.
Premier League club Arsenal also tweeted their support:
And from the fans:
Source: Tom McGowan, Euan McKirdy and Jaide Timm-Garcia/CNN International