BANGKOK (Reuters) - The owners of English soccer champions Leicester City say they will resist attempts by more glamorous rivals to lure away their title-winning players, after an unlikely triumph that has captured the imagination of fans worldwide.
Duty-free magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha became the first Thai owner of an English Premier League title-winning team on Monday night, when the only club capable of catching them, Tottenham Hotspur, were held to a 2-2 draw by Chelsea.
Leicester’s journey from 5,000-1 outsiders to English champions has captivated soccer lovers everywhere, but also prompted predictions that the team could be broken up in the off-season as bigger clubs look to poach their best players.
“We are not the team that will sell players for money,” said Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, the club’s vice chairman and Vichai’s son, in comments reported by Thai website Manager.
“So, I can confirm that we will keep all major players with the team, such as Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante or Kasper Schmeichel.”
Next season, in addition to defending their Premier League title, Leicester - who were playing in the second tier of soccer when Vichai’s King Power Group took over in 2010 - will compete in UEFA’s lucrative Champions League.
At least one prominent supporter, a Thai monk who has regularly blessed the team during their astonishing rise, believes they will have few problems taking on the giants of European soccer.
“I believe the power of Buddhism... given through the Buddhist monk and executives has created teamwork and unity in the team,” Phra Prommangkalachan told Reuters TV.
“With their clear minds, it has brought concentration, ability, and determination for them to go to the international arena. At the moment, they will be able to thrive anyway because of their strong minds and they will continue to win on the international stage.”
Vichai is a regular devotee of Phra, the 63-year-old assistant to the abbot of Bangkok’s Traimitr Temple, and took him to Britain to bless the stadium and the team.
Whilst the English Premier League is wildly popular across Southeast Asia, Thai fans had not taken much notice of unfashionable Leicester before this season, preferring to follow established names like Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
But the “Siam Foxes” support base has ballooned with the team’s success. The Leicester City Thai Facebook page had nearly 600,000 likes as of Tuesday, compared with 5,000-6,000 at the start of the season, said corporate relations manager Rattananuch Lohachala.
Many Thai fans have adopted Leicester as their second team.
“We know that we are not always the first team on their mind,” said Rattananuch. “But we are number-two and we are happy about that.”
For the Thai fans that Leicester have attracted, the strong team ethic that saw them beat bigger-spending rivals to the title is part of the club’s appeal.
“They don’t need to have the big shots or superstar players in the team, but they rely on great teamwork,” said fan Korawit Thaemphet, outside King Power’s Bangkok headquarters.
Many punters were skeptical of Leicester’s success right up until they won the title, and fans worry about their chances of repeating the success.
“This is great but I think it’s only for this season,” said Thaweewat Ingkathanachai, a student who switched to following Leicester from Liverpool last season.
“I can’t believe next season they can be champions again,” he said. “The big teams will be back.”
Bookmakers seem to agree. Paddy Power’s website was offering odds of 33/1 for Leicester to win the title again next season - and just 14/1 for them to be relegated from the top flight.
More than 1,000 fans had gathered at King Power on Sunday for the team’s last match, when the company laid on free food and beer. King Power is planning a celebration at the same venue in Bangkok when the team plays their next game on May 7, Rattananuch said.
Replica shirts have sold out in Britain and Thailand, a missed opportunity for Vichai and King Power and driving fans to Thailand’s counterfeit market.
“Leicester shirts are selling as well as Barcelona shirts,” said Sompot Thavornchareon, working at a sports shirt stall in Bangkok’s weekend Chatuchak market.
Shirts at the stall sell for 250 baht ($7.17), a fraction of the price of the official shirt 1,800 baht ($51.65).
“I wish I had known they would do that well,” said another vendor Net, whose shop in the shadow of Bangkok’s National Stadium sells official merchandise and has run out of Leicester shirts. “I would have ordered hundreds at the start of the season.”
Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana, Juarawee Kittisilpa, Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Manunphattr Dhanananphorn and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Alex Richardson
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