Leicester City make steady inroads with Thai fans despite Arsenal defeat
BANGKOK -- On Valentine's night in the Thai capital, there was limited evidence of the nation's new-found love affair with English Premier League leaders Leicester City as they took on Arsenal in a top-of-the-table clash.
But there are signs that club owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's long term plan to garner support in his home country is gathering momentum. The head of duty free giant, King Power, longs to see Leicester as Thailand's English team -- replacing perennial favourites, Manchester United and Liverpool. Progress may be slow but it is steady.
Some Thai fans have started labelling Claudio Ranieri's men as the 'Siamese Foxes', though when Jamie Vardy put them ahead with a penalty just before half-time, the reaction at a popular Bangkok beer garden was relatively muted.
But Patpon Kongcharoen, a 45-year-old finance manager, told ESPN FC, "I support Leicester because their standard has gone up and, of course, the owner is Thai. I also like them because their success is not about money, but mostly about good team work. I used to follow Liverpool but I have become disillusioned with them."
Korn Santawisuk, a 25-year-old businessman, is sticking with Liverpool for now but admitted that Leicester had become his second favourite English club. He said, "I am supporting Leicester against Arsenal because we see them as a Thai team. Their popularity in Thailand will continue to grow and people will stick by them, even if they go back down to the Championship."
There were groans when Danny Welbeck nodded home Arsenal's last-gasp winner to give them a 2-1 victory but the disappointment soon passed.
Edward Kanchanawat, a Thai-English bar manager, is used to seeing a predominantly local clientele but insists that Leicester are not a big draw when the football is on.
He said, "People ask if we're showing the Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal games but I can honestly say that no one has ever asked if we're showing a Leicester game. A few customers have expressed their pride in the Thai links with Leicester but I've never seen someone in a Leicester shirt here."
It has been a long journey to the current stage from Vichai's purchase of the club back in 2010. King Power quickly secured a sales spot for club merchandise at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. Then, when the club were promoted to the top tier in 2014, a shop was opened in Siam Square's sky train station, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. With Leicester finally in the Premier League, it looked the perfect time to connect Thai fans to the club.
But things did not go according to plan, as Leicester struggled before mounting a great escape act to beat the drop back into the second tier. There was then the PR disaster of the sacking of three players, which, according to the club's website, was "as a consequence of events that took place during the club's end-of-season goodwill tour of Thailand". The club shop then closed down, suggesting that business had not taken off as anticipated.
However, the sensational form of Ranieri's men since last August has breathed new life into Vichai's hopes of finding a place for Leicester in the hearts of his countrymen.
Vichai has made strenuous efforts to instil a Thai identity at the club, including blessings from Thai Buddhist monks. The club also took a more direct route into the hearts of their English fans by distributing free cans of one of Thailand's biggest beer brands at a home fixture last year.
In another indication of progress, shirt sales are on the rise. A spokesman for Ari Football -- a football specialist store with several retail outlets in Thailand -- confirmed that sales of the 2015-16 replica shirt were easily outstripping the previous year. He told ESPN FC, "Leicester shirts are selling much better this season. They are currently sold out, while last season's shirts are still in stock and on sale at a discount price in our outlet store."
But hopes of developing a long term fan base may lie among those who have yet develop an affinity with English football's more traditional powers. Social media will play a part and the Leicester Thailand Facebook page now has over 400,000 followers.
Leicester City fan, Dean Wilkins, is a teacher who has lived in Bangkok for six years. He is better placed than most to provide an insight into the changes that have recently occurred, both in terms of the interest generated and the impact on the younger generation.
"There has definitely been a growth in awareness of Leicester in the last year or two," he told ESPN FC. "When I first came here, maybe a few of the more knowledgeable fans would know who we were. Now, though, everybody has jumped on the bandwagon. 'Leicester, very good' has replaced 'hello' as the standard way I am greeted by my Thai friends."
In terms of how King Power can target young fans, Dean has observed increasing support at his place of work.
"This season more and more of my students are switching teams and declaring their loyalty to Leicester," said Wilkins. "They impress me with the knowledge they show of the players and it seems I am the one trying to keep their feet on the ground to stop them getting carried away, with talk of winning the title."
In terms of sustaining interest in Thailand, Wilkins sees ongoing success as essential.
"I think if we go on to win the title then we can expect a Leicester City explosion in Thailand," he said. "Thai fans are quick to jump onto success as they have shown with the surge in popularity of their national team in the last year or two and Buriram United's popularity around the country."
The defeat to Arsenal was a huge setback as holding on to a point would have represented an excellent result after the previous weekend's victory at Manchester City. However, Leicester City's fighting performance suggested that they will not fade away in the season run-in.
Vichai's dream of turning Leicester into an attraction as big as Manchester United and Liverpool may be a work in progress. But if they can hold on to become the first so-called small club since Blackburn Rovers in 1995 to win the English title, their inroads into Thailand -- and indeed Southeast Asia -- could be significant.
Paul Murphy has lived in Thailand for nine years, contributing to ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express (UK) sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK