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Thailand Cheers as Far-Away Leicester City Clinches Unlikely Soccer Title

Leicester City fans celebrate after their team scores against Manchester United while watching the game on a big screen, in Bangkok, Thailand, May 1, 2016. Jorge Silva—Reuters

An unlikely English soccer team is captivating an Asian nation

On the other side of the world from Old Trafford soccer stadium, more than 600 fans had gathered on a humid Sunday evening in Bangkok to watch Leicester City and Manchester United projected onto a big screen. Leicester City’s chairman, Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, was throwing a party in the plaza outside the headquarters of his duty-free retail company, King Power, in anticipation that the Foxes might take the three points needed to clinch an unlikely Premier League Title.

Amid a jovial family atmosphere of King Power employees and blue-shirted fans, 35-year-old Clive Nagington, from the Leicestershire town of Loughborough, was perhaps the most loud and animated. Although he has worked as an English teacher in Thailand for 12 years, he has followed the Foxes with a passion all his life.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams!” he said. “To qualify for the Champions League is an achievement in itself. But to win the Premier League is absolute heaven!”

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Leicester and Manchester United played to a 1-1 draw, delaying an official celebration. Still, after the game, a group of middle-aged Thai men — fueled by an evening of free beer and buffet — danced for the local TV cameras, waving flags, and singing “Leicester! Leicester!”

The Foxes later clinched the Premier League title when Tottenham Hotspur, the second-place team, played to a draw against Chelsea on Monday. The Spurs haven’t won at Chelsea since 1990.

Nicknamed the “Siamese Foxes” due to their Thai sponsorship, coach Claudio Ranieri’s underdogs have captured this soccer-mad nation’s hearts. Vichai, the reclusive King Power chairman, bought the Leicester City club in 2010 when it was contending in the second-tier with the likes of Scunthorpe United and Doncaster Rovers. The duty-free magnate was following in the footsteps of fellow Thai billionaire and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who in 2007 purchased Manchester City after his advances toward Fulham and Liverpool FC had been rejected. Thaksin was deposed as Premier of Thailand by a military coup in 2006, and now lives as a fugitive in Dubai.

Like many Bangkok elite, Vichai is of Chinese descent. His surname, Srivaddhanaprabha, with its bouncy alliteration of ancient Pali syllables, was bestowed on him by King Bhumibol in February 2013, a sure sign of admittance into the noble class.

A month later, the Thai tycoon bought Leicester’s stadium, reportedly for $60 million, and changed its name to King Power Stadium. The cash injection helped alleviate club’s spiraling debt. Leicester had fallen into receivership back in 2002, shortly after its new stadium had been built. The facility’s massive construction cost, plus the team’s relegation from the Premier League that season — depriving the Foxes of millions in TV and advertising revenues — nearly drove the club into the ground. Besides opening his checkbook, last season the King Power chief also flew in some Buddhist monks to offer blessings to the players and purify the pitch. The Foxes were languishing at the bottom of the standings. The move may have done the trick.

But even with such high-profile backing from a Thai company, not many soccer fans in this country had even heard of Leicester City until now. Most devote their loyalty almost exclusively to either Liverpool or Manchester United. Domestic matches in Thailand garner little interest. The play is shoddy, and match-fixing allegations are never far away. Although German and Spanish games are regularly televised, Thai fans prefer the rough and tumble of the English league.

Jirat Prasertsup, a longtime football fan from the northern city of Chiang Mai, considers himself typical of Thai soccer supporters. “I used to support Man United because I liked their attacking style of play, back in the days of Giggs, Scholes and Eric Cantona,” he explained. “But now I am no longer interested in Man U. I don’t like their formation. Many Thais switched to Man City when [former Premier] Thaksin bought them. Now, I think everyone will start following Leicester.”

Wanchai Rujawongsanti, sports editor of the Bangkok Post, concedes that many Thai fans are jumping on the bandwagon. “A lot of Thais now support Leicester because of the club’s Thai connections,” he said. “But if Leicester had not been in contention for the title, very few people would follow them. When Leicester was struggling to survive in the Premier League last season, few people here cared about them. In fact, Leicester is still the ‘second team’ of most Thai football fans. If Manchester United or Liverpool are challenging for the title, fans will surely support them instead.”

As the 2015-16 progressed, and the Foxes continued to defy expectations, the fan base started growing. The club’s official Thai Facebook page now has nearly 600,000 followers, not a far cry from Chelsea — the other “Blue Army” — who have a million. Street stalls in Bangkok are rife with counterfeit football shirts, which sell for just a few dollars. You can still purchase an official replica goalkeeper’s away shirt (XXL only), but it’ll cost you nearly $100, which is close to the average weekly wage in Thailand.

Soccer offers Thais temporary respite from their country’s real-world struggles. (Thailand is currently enduring its worst drought in 65 years with steaming temperatures in excess of 40°C, or 104°F, every day.) The country is more invested than ever in the game. Tottenham Hotspur also has a Thai shirt sponsor — AIA Thailand, an insurance company, while Everton’s jerseys are emblazoned with the logo of sponsors Chang Beer. Thais also own Reading FC and Sheffield Wednesday. For the first time, the Thai national team has reached the final stage of qualifiers for the World Cup.

Now that Leicester has won the Premier League, Vichai, the team’s chairman, will surely fly his squad out to Thailand this summer to show off the Premier League trophy. A sea of royal blue shirts will greet them.

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