By Stacey Pope
On the evening of Saturday 27th October, Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s helicopter crashed and exploded just outside the stadium. What should have been an ordinary day of football turned into the most devastating and horrific event in Leicester City Football Club’s history.
Destined to become a tragic, ‘Where were you when?’ event, many Leicester City fans who had been to the match that evening were just getting home, digesting a 1-1 draw with West Ham, when the news started to break. For me, a researcher of football fandom and Leicester City supporter myself, I was in Canada on a research trip when family members first got in touch to say that rumours were circulating that something had happened with Srivaddhanaprabha’s helicopter. At that point the news had yet to reach the mainstream news channels so we turned to social media for information. Tears started to well up and I felt sick to the core when I saw the images of the helicopter in flames. Desperately we prayed for a miracle, but we knew deep down that it was unlikely anyone could have got out of that crash alive. We also knew that Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha would have been on the helicopter; for this was a typical post-match routine for Leicester City fans, seeing Srivaddhanaprabha’s blue helicopter escorting him home after matches and proudly flying over the King Power Stadium.
Aviation Tragedies in UK Football: The Munich Air Crash and the Srivaddhanaprabha Helicopter Crash
As part of my research I have interviewed female Leicester City fans about their memories of the 1958 Munich air crash, when eight of the Manchester United team lost their lives after travelling home from a European Cup quarter final against Red Star Belgrade. I had been struck by how deeply moved supporters were when recalling this event, using terms such as ‘heartbreaking’, ‘shook up’, ‘absolutely dreadful’ and ‘it was a tragedy’ to describe their feelings. The Munich air disaster and the Srivaddhanaprabha helicopter crash have occurred in very different time periods and under very different circumstances but here I consider a few comparisons which can perhaps be drawn between these aviation tragedies in football in the UK.
These events may resonate more strongly with football fans, but their impact has also extended beyond the sports following community. In my research, supporters discussed how the extensive media coverage of Munich meant that this was reported across the nation as a national issue. In the words of interviewees, it was, ‘really really big news’ which meant that ‘People sort of latched onto that, it didn’t matter whether you were a football person or not…Because it sounded awful’. The Srivaddhanaprabha helicopter crash has similarly become a national event; as well as receiving extensive media coverage, figures such as Prime Minister Theresa May and Prince William have expressed their condolences. It has also received global media exposure, with tributes being paid across the world. For me personally, the wider impact of the helicopter crash has been apparent through the messages of sympathy I have received from non-football following friends as well as comments from people about the tragedy whilst in Canada, showing the global reach of this event.
Much of the press and TV coverage of the Munich air crash centred around rhetorics of family and loss and followed highly personal narratives. In the case of the Srivaddhanaprabha helicopter crash, we have seen media coverage following the Leicester City owner’s family members including his wife Aimon Srivaddhanaprabha and son (Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, also the vice-chairman of the club) laying a wreath amongst the tributes from fans at the stadium. Media reporting has also followed Leicester City players and current staff at the club along with former players and managers visiting the memorial site at the King Power Stadium. Heartfelt tributes have also been paid on social media, including a heart wrenching personal letter addressed to the Chairman from goal-keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Tragic events such as this transcend club rivalries. Following the Munich air crash, the local community pulled together with Manchester City fans sympathising with Manchester United fans and sharing their grief, as well as the club receiving enormous public sympathy across the nation (Ward and Williams, 2009). The Srivaddhanaprabha helicopter crash has seen the football fan community come together as one big ‘football family’. Leicester City supporters have been united in their grief but tributes have also been paid by supporters of other clubs across the world. This shows the power of the sport to unite people and generate a sense of collective belonging with other people or fans.
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha: One of Our Own
Leicester City’s billionaire Thailand owner has a special place in the hearts of Leicester City fans. Perhaps some recent history of the club can help to explain why he has had such a huge influence at Leicester. Srivaddhanaprabha brought stability to a club which had been in turmoil in earlier years. The club nearly went out of existence after going into administration in 2002. Having spent a few seasons struggling in the Championship, the club were relegated to the third tier of English football in 2008 for the first time in its history. But Srivaddhanaprabha wiped out the club debts, bringing financial stability to the club.
Not only that, but since becoming the club owner, Srivaddhanaprabha has overseen a number of incredible seasons: promotion from the Championship to the Premiership; ‘the great escape’ when Leicester City narrowly escaped relegation in 2014-15; the ‘fairy tale’ story of Leicester winning a Premiership title at 5000/1 title odds and perhaps ‘sport’s greatest achievement’ (CNN, 2016); as well as a Champions League quarter-final. I confess, my days of selling raffle tickets to try and keep the club afloat have seemed a long way off having been able to enjoy these achievements. Not only that, but Srivaddhanaprabha has invested in the local region, donating millions to local charities. This has included donations to a local children’s hospital and city university hospital. At a time when fans at other clubs have been in conflict with owners, Leicester fans have been enjoying treats such as free beers, hotdogs and cupcakes during celebratory events, including Srivaddhanaprabha’s birthday. Fans have been excited at future plans for the club, including investing in a new training ground, as well as discussions around the extending the stadium.
So, like all Leicester City fans, I am truly devastated by the death of our owner and we also mourn the others who lost their lives on board the helicopter, Pilot Eric Swaffer, his partner Izabela Roza Lechowicz, and two members of Srivaddhanaprabha’s staff, Nursara Suknamai and Kaveporn Punpare. The outpouring of grief shows this is a city in mourning, united in grief and this catastrophic event has brought the club to its knees.
CNN (2016) Leicester City: Could Premier League triumph be sport’s greatest achievement? Available at https://www.cnn.com/2016/04/29/sport/leicester-city-premier-league/index.html (accessed: 2 November 2018).
Pope, S. (2016) ‘Female fan experiences and interpretations of the 1958 Munich air disaster, the 1966 World Cup finals and the rise of footballers as sexualised national celebrities’. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 51(7), pp. 848–866.
Ward, A, Williams, J (2009) Football Nation: Sixty Years of the Beautiful Game. London: Bloomsbury.