Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, The Death of a Dream, And Why Football Matters
As Leicester City laid siege to West Ham United’s goal during Saturday afternoon’s Premier League match at the King Lower Stadium, my 200% podcast colleague Edward Carter turned and said to me, “Leicester’s title win was only ever going to be a one-off, wasn’t it? But they’ve been well run. They’re in a better place. They’re not looking over their shoulders all the time at relegation any more. I reckon they’re setting up for a crack at Europe.”
I agreed. The dust had settled after a great escape against relegation, the most unlikely English championship win in living memory, Champions League football, and the departure of Claudio Ranieri, Leicester City had emerged from it all an upwardly-mobile Premier League football club with an eye on better things in the future. Perhaps not immediately, and certainly not as immediately as the events of two and a half years ago came about, there was a plan, and that’s more than it sometimes feels we can say for a lot of football clubs.
And then it happened.
Life is fragile and can be easily and quickly snatched away, and no matter how many times we come to experience it, its taking away is always shocking in its suddenness. This also feels like uncharted territory, in several different ways. We live in an age of instant news, and reporting of the crash itself was as quick as we would expect. There was, however, a reticence to announce casualties which left journalists having to pick very carefully through their words and the public not entirely certain whether there could still be a glimmer of hope that there might have been survivors. Whilst there could be hope, even only the faintest glimmer, it was naturally seized upon and held onto, an entirely understandable reaction rendered sadly obsolete by last night’s announcement from the club itself.
The human side to this terrible story is, of course, more important than the football side, in its own way. With the deaths now reported of five people, this is a tragedy of substantial scale before we even pause to take into account any other considerations. But tragedies such as this remind us of the extent to which we embed this game into our identities and personalities. We connect through this game and although we may all belong to different tribes, we do have this common theme that runs through us, and death transcends most tribalism. But every aspect of what has happened over the last couple of days has been both shocking and, in its own way, unusual.
The wealth and global attention that has become attached to the Premier League was the driving force behind the influx of foreign club owners in the first decade of this century, and it became easy to slide into an “us vs them” mentality, whilst overlooking the many crimes committed against English football clubs by very English owners over the years. “Foreign owners” became a “problem” in modern football for some, with those who’d leapt in assuming an easy buck or two held aloft as examples of why none could be trusted.
The truth, however, has always been more complex than that. Each club is a story unto itself and the story of Leicester City is as unique as that of any other club. The story of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and this particular club was always defined by something other, of an owner who seemed to instinctively understand both the club and the city that it represents. It is as much the story of millions of pounds in charitable donations to local causes as of Premier League football. It’s the story of a most unlikely love affair, of the businessman who shied from the spotlight but was thrust into it nevertheless via the wild success of his investment, and whose other-worldly lifestyle – the helicopter leaving from the centre circle of the King Power Stadium some time after every home match, for example – became a part of the club’s weekend ritual, whenever City were playing at home.
The springtime of 2016 was a balmy time, in England. An unseasonably early summer seemed upon us as Leicester City cantered their way to the Premier League title. When it came, the team itself wasn’t even playing, and Chelsea were given the satisfaction of snatching the last mathematical chance that Tottenham Hotspur had of catching them. When the full-time whistle blew at Stamford Bridge on that warm Monday evening at the very start of May (Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was there that night), the city of Leicester poured out of the pubs, out of their homes, and into its streets to celebrate in a way that an English championship has never been celebrated before. Reporters were packed off to the East Midlands, messages of congratulations were received from all over the world. Those were the days.
Supporters of other clubs from modest backgrounds who’ve achieved success likely have an inkling of understanding of what Leicester City supporters went through in 2016, and it is a curiosity that three corners of the East Midlands – Derby, Nottingham and Leicester – have all managed to prick the bubble of Big City Football in over the course of the last half-century or so. But in this era, with this amount of global attention, it was unprecedented and it will not be seen again, in all likelihood. But the sense of amazement as this team shot to the top of the table and stayed there was experienced by all of us, and the tributes from all corners of the game have been heartfelt and genuine. It belonged to the people of Leicester, but their title win of 2016 was something experienced by all of us, even if we were outside with our noses pressed against the glass.
It is customary, at times like these, to say that football “doesn’t matter.” There is, most but not all of the time, a noble sentiment behind such comments, that there is something greater that binds us all together and that the false gods of what happens on the pitch of a Saturday afternoon pale into insignificance alongside human tragedy, in particular the loss of life. There is, however, sometimes another sentiment at play in such comments, that what matters to us is unimportant, that it’s trivial, and not only in an entirely superficial sense.
But football does matter. The game itself long ago outgrew the childish and facile notion (often proposed by people who wouldn’t consider, say, reading a book to be, “just looking at some ink on a piece of paper”) that it’s “just twenty-two men kicking a pig’s bladder about.” It’s a conduit onto which we attach our hopes and our identity. It matters to those who celebrated in the streets of Leicester two and a half years ago. It matters to those who have laid their scarves at the King Power Stadium over the last couple of days or so.
In a time during which it has become fashionable to talk about parts of the country that have been “left behind” or “forgotten”, it is worth reflecting upon what the football club owner who bought an East Midlands football club, got it into the Premier League and then won it whilst seemingly understanding the civic importance of all of this and donating money to important local causes gave, in a country that increasingly doesn’t seem to care very much about those who live here, or at the very least does a very good job of giving the impression that it doesn’t. Vichai did, and it’s a sentiment that will not easily be forgotten by those whose lives he did impact upon.
Perhaps that sadness also feels so pronounced because this story reaches deep into us. Leicester City’s success was a fairy tale, and there’s something inherently joyous and life-affirming about seeing a fairy tale playing out before our very eyes. They’re not supposed to end this way, though. They’re supposed to end with the reassurance that everybody concerned lived happily ever after. But the loss of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is something considerably greater than this. He gave the city of Leicester a dream, but in doing so he gave it a voice and a feeling of pride that his death cannot take away. His legacy within the city will be greater than he would likely ever have imagined. Things can and will never be the same again for Leicester City, and the club wouldn’t change that for the world.