Football’s crazy rich Asians

By: Charles Lim

HE WAS the most successful Asian owner of a topnotch professional football club in England. To Filipinos, however, and even to a majority of the Filipino football community he was still an unknown. Until tragedy struck on Saturday, October 27, 2018, at the King Power Stadium in Leicester City, England.

Leicester City FC’s Thai owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, 60, died with two of his staff and the pilot and his friend when the helicopter they were in took off and crashed into the car park long after a regular home game of the English Premiere League (EPL).

The profound grief and shock that engulfed the Premiere League team, the entire City of Leicester, and this great footballing nation were beyond one’s imagination. Tens of thousands of home fans visited King Power Stadium in the ensuing days to pay their respects, the city went into mourning, British royalty and football greats from Europe to Asia to the Americas and Africa expressed their deepest, heartfelt sorrows.

Vichai was a Thai billionaire of Chinese descent and ranked third richest in the Kingdom with a net worth of USD4.9 billion. He was Owner and Chairman of King Power Duty Free in Thailand who had meticulously built his fortune and empire through this retail business.

His other business interests include Accor’s Pullman Hotels in Thailand and Thai Air Asia.

Like in most Asians (Filipinos excluded, sigh…), the love for football was eminent in Vichai. With his vast wealth and the passion for football, he paid 39 million English pounds for Leicester City Football Club in 2010. It was rumored that he was greatly influenced by former Thai Prime Minister, Takshin Shinawatra, who as a onetime owner of the top club, Manchester City.

Leicester rapidly gained promotion to the Premiere League in 2014 from the Championship Division and in 2016, against a 5,000-to-1 odds, won the English Premiere League. They did this in grand fashion, brushing aside the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool among others in a fairy tale league run.

One does not have to guess how this great achievement sealed the close ties between Vichai and Leicester City. As a true philanthropist, he donated to charities in both Thailand and in Leicester. Vichai was bestowed an honorary Doctors of Laws from the University of Leicester in 2016.

The entire Leicester team and club officials traveled to Bangkok to pay their last respects and attend the funeral of Vichai, the boss, straight from a highly emotional  EPL match against Cardiff which they won 1-nil.

My admiration for this individual, now gone, led me to discover that there are at least half a dozen more crazy rich Asians who are present owners of football clubs in Europe.

They may not have success stories or accomplishments like Vichai’s written in the clubs’ annals yet but their passion for the most popular sport in the world and their true grit in consummating their business successes in their home country with harnessing a dream of football glory in elite leagues is most admired.

Here are more Football’s Crazy Rich Asians:

Tony Fernandes, 54, is the Malaysian owner of English club, Queen’s Park Rangers. Tony is best known to Filipinos as the Chairman of AirAsia, the largest low cost carrier, with formidable operations in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, India and, naturally, Malaysia.

Tony went to school in London, worked there with Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group and, naturally, loves football. He bought the London club, QPR in 2011 but had seen the club’s performance fluctuate between EPL and Championship levels.

Tony’s passion and involvement in sports obviously created immense marketing opportunities for his brands particularly in the EPL and the Formula 1, which he owned the Lotus Racing outfit in the 2011/2012 season. Unfortunately, the later turned out to be a “disaster” by his own admission and he no longer owns a team in F1.

Erick Thohir, 43, is a media mogul in Indonesia and earlier this year was chairman of the organizing committee of the highly successful Asian Games held in Jakarta and Palembang in 2018.

He is, until recently, the majority shareholder top flight Serie A club, Inter Milan. Erick is currently eyeing buying Oxford United, a level 3 English club from another Thai owner.

Eric also owns American major football league club, DC United and, take note of this – he is the first Asian to ever own a NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers!

At his early age, we can only expect more acquisitions and spectacular moves from this young Asian in the global sporting world. Watch out for Oxford United, guys!

Peter Lim, 65, became the first Singaporean to own a top European football club in 2014. He invested 420 million Euros for Valencia and groomed it into a credible number 4 standing in the highly competitive Spanish La Liga in the 2017/18 season.

Peter also owns another football club in the UK, Salford City, apparently with some of Manchester United’s former stars who have become great buddies of his and his family. He also has invested in Hotel Football in a 50% stake in British carmaker, McLaren Automotive.

Peter also owns Mint Media Sports, a company that owns the image rights of Cristiano Reynaldo. The Portuguese superstar was once with Manchester United and Real Madrid and now with Juventes.

Vincent Tan, 66, the Malaysian billionaire with a diversified conglomerate known as Berjaya, owns newly promoted EPL club, Cardiff City. His interest in the sport also saw him mix-match his philanthropic inclination with the acquisition of FK Sarajevo and KV Kortrijk in recent years.

In the Philippines, Berjaya is involved in the country since the early 1990s. It owns and operates a hotel in Makati, apart from running a gaming operation, just to name a few. Vincent’s philanthropic qualities also saw Berjaya Philippines built and turn over 1,000 units of low cost housing under the Gawad Kalinga Foundation with pledges of more to come after seeing the country’s ravaged environment after every storm or disaster.

Cardiff City FC is where Philippine’s only footballer in the EPL plays. The Azkal’s topnotch goalkeeper, Neil Etheridge, is Cardiff’s first choice and we are on a watch on what this bond between Vincent and Neil, hatched thousands of miles away in England can bring to uplift football in the Philippines.

Vichai, Tony, Erick, Peter and Vincent are in the league of their own. Ah, these crazy rich Asians. Comically, they will divulge that they were never good in playing football when they were young but the passion for “the beautiful game” has continuously grown in them all these years, so with their present status,  owning a football club is a passion to improve the sport and its local community.

Charles Lim is one crazy Asian football enthusiast who runs a PR consultancy in the Philippines. He went to school in England and worked in several Asean countries and is now a leading force in advocacy for sports tourism in the country.  

Email: charles.selrahco@gmail.com         

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