Thai football fans warming to unfashionable Leicester City


Bangkok (AFP)

Leicester City's rise from relegation scrappers to Premier League table-toppers has won them admirers across the sporting world, including in Thailand -- home of their billionaire owner -- where the Foxes are creeping into fashion.

The club, currently three points clear at the top of the world's most watched football league, are owned by Thai duty-free magnate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, whose King Power brand is emblazoned on the club shirt.

Their rise is one of the biggest David v Goliath sporting narratives in recent memory -- and a success story for Thailand, where they are dubbed the Siamese Foxes.

The Thai Leicester City fans' Facebook page boasts 445,000 "likes", a new found popularity that is translating into increased shirt sales.

But Leicester's players are still not household names in the football-mad Southeast Asian kingdom and on match days the club's deep blue colours are largely absent from Bangkok's bars.

Observers say that is in part down to publicity-shy Vichai, who has averred the usual fanfare of a PR campaign associated with foreign ownership of Premier League clubs.

But it also because traditional footballing giants such as Liverpool and Manchester United still draw the loyalty of most Thai fans.

Waiting to play during a casual game in central Bangkok on a recent afternoon, Kittideht Jirawattanakan said he was astonished by the Foxes' rise.

But when quizzed on the team, he admitted to being a little unprepared.

"I don't really know much about them," he said.

"(I know) the team has Thai owners -- they play aggressively and they're on fire at the moment."

- Lead and they shall follow -

The club was bought by retail mogul Vichai in 2010. After a few false starts, the team gained promotion to the Premier League, piquing interest among Thais in a previously unfashionable outfit.

Vichai's boardroom has won praise for its unflustered approach to running the club and shrewd appointments of players and managers.

Now, the swashbuckling exploits of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and co. are paying dividends and slowly catching the imagination of Thais.

"The team is getting more and more fans, as they see their performances and their success," Bigjah Satit Krikul, Thailand's most famous television football pundit, told AFP.

"It could be a phenomenon if they win the championship, as they were an average team last season," he added of the club which staged a remarkable turnaround to stay up in the top flight in 2014/15.

In a reflection of that growing fanbase shirt sales are booming.

"Everyone is turning to them. The shirt is sold-out -- people are still trying to find them, but we don't have any left," said Siwat Vasantasingh, CEO of Ari Football Concept Store in Bangkok's commercial heart.

To date, Leicester have not leaned heavily on their potential Thai market.

The last tour was remarkable only for the indiscretions of the son of then manager Nigel Pearson, who was caught on a widely circulated sex tape in which a group of Leicester's young players racially insulted Thai women.

But the club may be poised for a change of gears in the kingdom.

Vichai backed the successful bid of a former police chief to run the Thai FA, paving the way for a tie-up with Leicester and the nation's game.

The club are tipped to sponsor a national academy and inject expertise into Thai football.

Leicester are 11 games from becoming the Premier League's most unlikely winners since its inception.

If they do win, Leicester's popularity will likely sky-rocket with Thai fans poised to buy into the minnows-turned-champions narrative.

"Once Thai people owned them, they got into the Premier League and got to the top of the table, so I follow and cheer for them," said 36-year-old Sukhum Kingkhangplu, catching his breath on the sidelines of a kickaround in Bangkok.