Tributes as soccer returns to Leicester 2 weeks after crash
LEICESTER, England (AP) — The soundtrack to Leicester's sporting fairytale now carries a mournful melody.
On the streets where improbable success was toasted two years ago, the "Champions of England" chant reverberated again on Saturday, this time as the chorus for thousands of fans marching with players to the scene of unthinkable tragedy.
A melancholic lyric has been added to honor the owner who made one of the greatest sporting underdog successes possible: "Champions of England. You made us sing that." It is why Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha will always be held in deep regard by the people of Leicester, where soccer returned for the first time since the Thai entrepreneur's death.
"The Boss" was the simple message on many T-shirts as up to 20,000 people embarked on a mile-long walk to the stadium where two weeks ago the 60-year-old Vichai died when his helicopter spiraled out of control shortly after taking off from the center circle.
It is the field where Vichai lifted the English Premier League trophy in May 2016, the culmination of an incredible journey taking an unglamorous team from the second tier to the pinnacle of English soccer. That was the day when tears of joy followed as tenor Andrea Bocelli serenaded manager Claudio Ranieri.
"Time to Say Goodbye" carried a new sorrowful significance on Saturday when a recording of Bocelli was played in King Power Stadium after Saturday's 0-0 draw against Burnley. Vichai's son, vice chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, led the players around the field to thank fans who held aloft white scarves emblazoned with "Forever in our hearts." Clutching a Thai flag, Aiyawatt was embraced by goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel at the end of a lap of appreciation as the team and supporters applauded.
Watching on, Ranieri looked close to tears on his return to Leicester. The Italian, whose reign ended nine months after the 5,000-1 longshot's title win, returned to mourn the late chairman along with his predecessor and successor as manager.
"His love and his passion helped us to achieve something amazing," Ranieri said. "Something that will be remembered forever."
The billionaire bought the struggling club in 2010 while in the second tier. In an era of mega-rich super clubs winning the English top-flight seemed unattainable for unfashionable teams like Leicester. With investment in the squad, but not vast sums, Vichai made the impossible dream possible.
"You don't support Leicester City to win things. Other people do that with other teams," fan Glyn Morgans, who has been coming to Leicester games since 1969, said on the 5,000-1 walk named after Leicester's title odds. "Leicester people support Leicester because they are local people who love their local team."
Now, though, Leicester is a name that resonates around the world.
"Even when we are on holiday people come up to us and say they are so pleased Leicester did it, a small club like Leicester," fan Margaret Bennett said as sunshine gave way to a downpour on the march to the stadium that was led by injured players, including defender Harry Maguire.
The hundreds of jerseys and floral tributes that amassed outside the stadium within days of the tragedy have been moved to an open space close to where Vichai's helicopter crashed in a ball of flames after the Oct. 27 night game against West Ham.
Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was still in the stadium an hour after the final whistle when he watched Vichai's blue aircraft take off as normal from the field, and he waved off the chairman. It was soon spiraling out of control and Schmeichel raced to the fire in a carpark.
"What happened next will stay with me forever," Schmeichel said in a 100-page matchday magazine dedicated completely to the five victims of the helicopter crash. "It has replayed through my head every minute since, wishing there was something more I could have done. I stood for a long time at the police cordon at the back of the carpark ... tears streaming down my face."
Schmeichel was among the players who flew briefly to Thailand a week ago to pay respects to Vichai at a Bangkok temple during a weeklong funeral ceremony.
Now the entire club could commemorate Vichai on matchday. The stadium fell silent for five minutes before kickoff as a video tribute to Vichai was played on big screens before chants of "Vichai" broke out. The day carried an additional poignancy as wreaths were also laid and an additional minute's silence held to mark 100 years since the end of World War I.
"This week has been hard," Leicester winger Marc Albrighton said. "Leicester fans have been brilliant for us and we need them. It's going to be a tough road. The lads are emotionally drained. Today was one of the hardest games I have ever played."
Before the game, club officials including Aiyawatt viewed the area that has become a makeshift memorial to his father a few minutes' walk from the stadium. The Leicester vice chairman, who is also known as Top, inspected the carpet of flowers that have been formed in front of a picture of Vichai and the word "boss" in blue and white flowers. Of the hundreds of soccer jerseys from Leicester and rival clubs that were placed outside the stadium in the days after the disaster, some now encircle the pitch while others have been placed on railings near the stadium.
Fans who traveled from the northwest city of Burnley added their only tributes and took inspiration from the 2016 success.
"Everyone was a Leicester fan that year," Burnley fan Roy Addison said. "It showed to a small club anything is possible. Nothing is impossible."
Grief will, however, forever be associated with the glory here.
Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore found a flicker of optimism at a dark moment. Supporters gathering in English streets holding banners of team owners usually signals discontent and protest. In Leicester, they have only affection for Vichai.
"The reaction showed a huge tolerance," Scudamore said in the days after Vichai's death. "It's probably put to bed the idea there are foreign owners and there are English owners, and all the foreigners are bad and all the English owners are good."
Now Leicester, with Claude Puel as coach, has to look to the future on the field with the team 10th in the 20-team standings.
Although the 32,184 attendance on Saturday was the biggest crowd of the season, the owner's death two years after the title win seems like the closing of a chapter to some fans.
"Games are a bit weird now we've had all that success," 21-year-old season ticketholder Sam Collins said. "When you win and lose now it doesn't mean as much anymore because we've been to the pinnacle."