Brian White stood quietly in front of the King Power Stadium, holding back tears as he looked over thousands of flowers, T-shirts, flags, and hand-crafted notes covering every inch of the sidewalk around the front half of the complex.
Not far away stood a helicopter carrying the Leicester City Club Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who had crashed two weeks ago when he was lifted off the ground after the Foxes home game. The investigators are still trying to figure out what happened, but everyone on board – Srivaddhanaprabha, the pilot, copilot and two team officers – died immediately. The accident has shattered this working-class city in the East Midlands, where Srivaddhanaprabha, a Thai billionaire, is considered a hero for transforming the football club from an indebted football club into the champions of the English Premier League. Now that the team have their first home game since the crash on Saturday, coaches, players and fans are preparing for an unprecedented amount of emotion.
"There will be a lot of tears," said White, 66, a season ticket holder who also travels to almost every away game. He resembles many people in Leicester: A retired textile worker who went to town games with his father as a child and now takes his children and grandchildren to play games. He saw owners coming and going, but none was like Srivaddhanaprabha. "He was the best. Everything he did was top notch. Everything was great. "
Srivaddhanaprabha, 60, was a rare breed in the sports world; Super-rich, someone who has made a deep connection to a hard-bitten part of Britain, even though he barely spoke English and rarely gave interviews. He became popular with the fans by giving out free beer on his birthday, subsidizing buses for away games and making generous donations to the local hospital and university. He took part in almost every home game, flew by helicopter from his British base outside of London and mingled with the fans long after the final whistle.
He had earned his billions in Thailand from a number of duty-free shops called King Power and was fascinated with English football during a trip to London in 1997 when he saw Leicester in the final of the League Cup. After he bought the club in 2010 for £ 39 million (66.8 million), he paid off a mountain of debt, took over the stadium and promised the battered fans promotion to the Premier League. And for good cause, he had Buddhist monks bless the stadium and the team.
At first everything seemed far-fetched, but the momentum began to develop. Leicester made it to the top league in 2014 after living in the lower rungs of English football and nearly falling into bankruptcy. In the following season, the team prevailed and held in the last games against relegation. And then in 2016 a miracle. The Foxes defeated 5,000-to-1 odds and won the title. They defeated the Titans of Manchester and London without real superstars and only a fraction of the payroll. "It's one of the biggest things in sports history," said construction worker Michael Barkham, a die-hard Leicester fan who came to the stadium on Thursday to honor the owner. "It is unthinkable at this time. I do not think it will ever happen again, to be honest.
Joan Stevens only shook his head at the memory of this glorious season. "It was just amazing, you just can not describe it," she said in front of the stadium. She nodded to a huge image of Srivaddhanaprabha hanging over the flowers, adding, "It was all he had. He saved her. "
The club is planning a series of tributes to Srivaddhanaprabha during the Saturday game against Burnley, including a video celebration of his life and commemorative badges and scarves for every fan. There are also plans for a statue of Srivaddhanaprabha. Players will be wearing shirts in his honor during the game, and a group of fans has organized a Walk for Vichai, a march from downtown to the stadium, where up to 20,000 people are expected. "We did not expect many to start with it, but once the ball rolled, it simply escalated," said James Bone, one of the organizers of the walk. Srivaddhanaprabha "meant a lot to many people."
City manager Claude Puel said it's not easy to focus the players on the game. The crash has hit the team hard, especially players like striker Jamie Vardy and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who belonged to the title win. The largest part of the club went to Thailand last weekend for the burial of Srivaddhanaprabha to Thailand and returned only on Tuesday. The team has reacted well on the pitch so far, winning 1-0 at Cardiff last Saturday in the first game since the crash. But the return home will be different and there are still some uncertainties about the future of the club, although Aiyawatt, son of Srivaddhanaprabha, has promised to continue his father's legacy. "It's not easy," said Puel on Thursday. "In the square we have to show our character to honor our chairman, that's the most important thing."
On Saturday, when fans go to the stadium, they pass a pile of news and tributes to Srivaddhanaprabha. A note written on a white T-shirt and left in front of the stadium last week seemed to capture what the city feels like. "Thank you for bringing us the best days of our lives," it said. "And thank you for making every football fan in the world smile."