BANGKOK (Reuters) - As English soccer champions Leicester lifted their trophy in Britain’s Midlands, more than 9,000 kilometres away on a sweltering night in Bangkok celebrating fans held aloft a blue banner that read “Leicester City - Thailand’s team.”
Some 1,500 supporters gathered to cheer the unlikely heroics of the team in an area the size of a soccer pitch outside the headquarters of King Power, the duty-free franchise that has made Leicester’s owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha one of Thailand’s richest men.
“I feel very happy that Thais can create something great and that Leicester can make people more familiar with Thais,” said Khampee Jirawinit, a pharmacist from northern Thailand.
“I just love the way Leicester play. I love Riyad Mahrez because he plays like me.”
Thai fans, many painted with Leicester colours on their faces and wearing team shirts, posed for selfies with a replica Premier League cup. They cheered the side to a 3-1 victory over Everton, watching on a giant outdoor screen as Leicester played their first game since becoming champions.
Leicester’s journey from 5,000-1 outsiders to English champions has captivated soccer lovers everywhere. Even with the team’s local owner, Thai fans had taken little notice of unfashionable Leicester before this season, preferring to follow established names such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
The “Siam Foxes” support base has ballooned with the team’s success, however. The Leicester City Thai Facebook page had nearly 620,000 “likes” on Saturday, compared with 5,000-6,000 at the start of the season.
Many Thai fans have adopted Leicester as their second team. Khampee is one of them, his first team being Manchester United, and he has been following Leicester for the past six months.
“They are a team that seems to come from mythical gods,” he said, sporting a fake Leicester shirt he bought last week.
“The odds were 5,000-1 and they have beaten those odds to become champions.”
Some fans were draped in Leicester flags bearing ancient Buddhist script and blessed by a Thai monk, Phra Prommangkalachan.
Vichai is a devotee of the 63-year-old assistant to the abbot of Bangkok’s Traimitr Temple and has flown the monk regularly to Britain to bless the team and their stadium.
Thai fans believe the Buddhist blessings and amulets he has given the team have helped them to win the title.
“The good-luck charms are something that the football players can hold on to and have played a part in them becoming champions,” said Natthapat Pornpiwat, who has worked for King Power for 18 years.
The flags, which the monk blesses and gives away, are changing hands on the private market for nearly 10,000 baht ($284.66) each, according to Thai media.
Since Leicester won the title, the temple has become a pilgrimage site for fans and other sports teams have also sought the monk’s blessing.
($1 = 35.1300 baht)
Additional reporting by Jutarat Skulpichetrat; Editing by Clare Fallon