Leicester (United Kingdom) (AFP) – Leicester City’s charismatic Thai boss was feared dead Sunday after a helicopter belonging to the billionaire crashed and burst into flames in the football stadium car park moments after taking off from the club’s pitch.
Neither the police nor the club would confirm or deny whether Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a regular at matches who flies to and from home games by helicopter, was on board the aircraft when it appeared to develop a mechanical problem in its rear propeller.
The BBC, Sky News and several British papers quoted sources saying the 60-year-old and a group of others boarded the blue helicopter from the middle of the pitch once the stadium emptied after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with West Ham.
Leicester City said only that it was assisting police with a “major incident” and Vichai’s King Power duty-free shopping empire was not commenting.
Local police thanked fans for their “patience” in a tweet issued nearly 18 hours after the crash.
“We are working with a number of other agencies to get an update out to the public and press,” the Leicestershire police force said in a tweet.
Images showed orange balls of flame engulfing the wreckage in the car park at King Power Stadium.
“Literally the engine stopped and I turned around, and it made a bit of a whirring noise. It turned silent, blades started spinning and then there was a big bang,” freelance photographer Ryan Brown told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Prayers and words of warm praise poured in from across Britain and beyond for the Thai boss who many credit with spurring Leicester’s against-all-odds Premier League title victory in 2016.
A steady stream of grieving fans laid down football scarves and shirts outside the home fans’ entrance as aviation experts picked through the helicopter’s charred remains.
Among the tributes was an image of Ganesh — a Hindu god also seen in Thai Buddhist temples.
A minute of silence was observed before the whistle of Sunday’s two early Premier League matches.
“He’s put Leicester on the map,” club supporter Cathy Dann, 55,told AFP.
“He’s made us big.”
– Prayers and disbelief –
England legend Gary Lineker, a former Leicester player and host of the BBC’s Match of the Day, tweeted: “That was the most difficult @BBCMOTD I’ve ever hosted… A terrible tragedy. Heartbreaking.”
Leicester stars Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire both tweeted emojis of hands held up in prayer.
Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was manager of the team under Vichai, called his former boss a “very, very generous man” who “saw every game during my time”.
And ordinary fans in central Bangkok said Vichai helped develop Thailand’s football as well, bringing the Southeast Asian country greater recognition in the sports world.
“He is an important person who has raised the bar of Thai football further,” Apichart Jitratkavee, a Leicester fan in the Thai capital, told AFP.
Vichai bought Leicester City in 2010 and moved to chairman the following February, pouring millions into the team and becoming a beloved figure in the club and the city — a feat not always achieved by the Premier League’s foreign owners.
– Miracle season –
It was under Vichai’s ownership that Leicester crafted one of the biggest fairy-tales in English football history by winning the 2015/16 Premier League, having started the season as 5,000-1 outsiders for the title.
Vichai’s major investments in the club helped return them to England’s Premier League from the second-tier Championship in 2014.
They initially seemed outclassed by richer and more established clubs from London, Liverpool and Manchester, languishing at the very bottom of the table for most of the 2014/15 season.
The Foxes, as the team are nicknamed, then engineered what fans now fondly refer to as the “Great Escape”, winning seven of their last nine matches.
They ended up finishing 14th, securing another season in Europe’s richest league in 2015/16.
But not even their most devout fans could have imagined what happened next.
Vardy, signed from non-league Fleetwood Town, scored in 11 consecutive matches, propelling the men in blue to a title without parallel in Premier League history.
The success also qualified them for the first time for the lucrative Champions League, the pinnacle of European football played by the continent’s most successful sides, including Barcelona and Real Madrid.
There, Leicester City defied the odds yet again, winning their group before eventually losing their quarter-final 2-1 over two legs to Atletico Madrid.
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