Leicester City faced 5,000-1 odds against winning English soccer’s top title when the current season began. Now, following what analysts have deemed one of the most unlikely triumphs in sports history, credit is falling on the unlikely leader behind the team: Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.
Srivaddhanaprabha bought Leicester City in 2010 through his company King Power International Group, a duty-free retail chain based in Thailand. At that time, the Foxes were a second-rate club in a league one notch below the Premier League it conquered Monday.
Previous owners had run the company into a financial crisis. But Vichai extinguished roughly $150 million in debts owed by the club and began assembling a team of misfits and overlooked players he hoped would shatter expectations. By 2014, the Thai mogul promised to bring the foundering club into a top-five finish within three years — a prediction that elicited laughter at the time.
Now, with a championship under his belt, it appears Vichai was being conservative.
It wouldn’t be the first time the 58-year-old played the underdog. Originally named Vichai Raksriaksorn, the businessman opened his first duty-free shop in 1989, a small outlet in Bangkok’s main airport called King Power.
The business grew steadily over the years, eventually achieving monopoly control over Thailand’s highly trafficked international airports. The empire even survived an attempt in 2008 by the post-coup government to revoke King Power’s licenses, which officials alleged had been granted improperly. King Power countersued and prevailed.
Relations with the authorities have since improved. In 2013, King Bhumibol Adulyadej bestowed Vichai’s family with a new surname, Srivaddhanaprabha, meaning “light of progressive glory.” Today, Forbes estimates his worth at $3.2 billion.
Vichai wasn’t the first East Asian magnate to purchase an English soccer team. Around the same time that King Power led a consortium to pick up Leicester, in 2010, Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan assumed ownership of Cardiff City.
But Vichai’s leadership has proved uniquely successful among his peers. He invested heavily in Leicester, but kept its payroll relatively cheap for the highly competitive English Premier League. At $53 million, the team’s payroll is roughly one-sixth that of Manchester United, whose players make a combined $313 million a year.
Under the leadership of King Power Senior Executive Vice President Susan Whelan and the coaching of manager Claudio Ranieri, originally of Italy, Leicester improved far faster than anyone anticipated — including Vichai himself.
“When we bought the team, we had so many plans,” Vichai’s son, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, told local news, according to the Wall Street Journal. “If you ask whether we believed the team would become the premier league champion when we bought it, the truth is at that point we didn’t dare to think so.”