Soccer

Leicester City owner confirmed dead after helicopter crash

AP, Kyodo

Leicester City’s owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha died in a helicopter crash along with four others on Saturday evening outside the English Premier League club’s stadium in Leicester, England, the club confirmed Sunday.

According to the club, Vichai’s helicopter crashed into a car park shortly after taking off from King Power Stadium in the East Midlands region and none of the five people on board survived.

Vichai achieved what seemed impossible in modern soccer: Gaining promotion with a modest club and winning the English Premier League title within two years.

Bankrolling Leicester City but without the lavish spending of the bigger clubs, the Thai billionaire oversaw one of the greatest underdog successes in sports when the 5,000-to-1 outsiders won soccer’s richest competition in 2016.

In an era of often-absentee foreign owners in the Premier League, Vichai also broke the mold by forging close ties with supporters and the local community.

“I still can’t believe it. He was a well-respected figure in the team and for me personally,” Leicester striker Shinji Okazaki, who signed with the club in 2015, wrote on Twitter in reaction to the news.

“Thank you so much. We will never forget you and the days we’ve spent with you.”

While Vichai did not seek the limelight and was far from flamboyant, the wealthy entrepreneur’s grandiose mode of transport from the stadium named after his King Power duty-free empire became symbolic of the club’s newfound status in the game. A helicopter would land on the field after matches and whisk away the owner.

Saturday night was the last journey for Vichai.

Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was seen weeping as he stared at a fireball in a carpark outside the stadium around an hour after a 1-1 draw with West Ham.

Moments earlier, the AgustaWestland AW169 had risen from the center circle and cleared the stadium roof before it spiraled out of control and plummeted into an adjacent carpark in flames.

The 60-year-old Vichai and the four other people on board did not survive the inferno, Leicester announced Sunday.

“I am so totally devastated. I just cannot believe what I saw last night,” Schmeichel said. In an emotional tribute to Vichai, the seven-year veteran of the club said: “You changed football. Forever. You gave hope to everyone that the impossible was possible, not just to our fans but to fans all over the world in any sport.”

On the spot where fans danced into the night after the improbable title victory two years ago, people gathered through the day to mourn. Over the course of the day scarves, jerseys and flowers were laid in an ever-expanding memorial in front of the stadium.

“Without you,” read one message on a club flag, “the dream wouldn’t have become reality.”