Can SA produce leaders of Vichai’s calibre?
THE owner of Leicester City Football Club in England, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, tragically passed away last week when his private helicopter spun out of control after leaving the King Power Stadium. It crashed in an open parking lot adjacent to the famous venue. Along with him, another three passengers and the pilot died.
A self-made businessman, Srivaddhanaprabha started a duty-free company in Thailand and over time he established himself as the fifth richest man in that country.
In 2010 he decided to buy Leicester City for £39 million (R729.2m) and at the same time he wiped clear the club’s £103m debt, and purchased the stadium outright on behalf of the club.
At the time Leicester City were floundering in Division One and in dire straits.
On his arrival at Leicester, Srivaddhanaprabha boldly pronounced that in a few years’ time he wanted to take Leicester City to the Champions League.
Naturally, the media scoffed and chuckled at this statement and thought “here is another rich man with wild dreams and no sense of reality”.
Srivaddhanaprabha had the courage and conviction to buy a languishing football club facing liquidation and backed them to the hilt. Winning promotion from the lower leagues until against almost incredible odds, Leicester City became champions of England by winning the Premier League in 2016.
The odds on them winning the league were at an astonishing 5000-1 with only one person in the entire world having the foresight to place a £50 bet on that outcome.
But the owner of the football club achieved his dream, and in 2017 Leicester City were playing in the Champions League for the first time in their history.
Despite being one of the richest men in the world, Srivaddhanaprabha did not go out to try to “buy” the league title by signing all the best available players in the world. He had a hard-working coaching staff and a good scouting system in place, which located two of the best “finds” in football in recent years in the form of Jamie Vardy and Ngolo Kante, among others.
One of the main attractions that the owner of King Power must have had to football in England was the fact that there is so much pride and history in the game in that country. Every little town has a team and virtually all those clubs are named after their region or town.
And most likely, because of this, there is a very strong community bond with the teams.
In the English Premier League every week, you will see packed stadiums at places like St Mary’s where Southampton play, and St James’s Park, Newcastle United’s base, each having a capacity of around 32 000 and 52 000 respectively. The fans are not there to shout for visiting teams. They shout vociferously for their home team and are proud of them – even in the face of poor performances and the threat of relegation.
This is because the history is special and particular to each club and the community is extremely proud of heritage.
Add to this rich tapestry of tradition the fact that the entire league structure in the English Football Association is streamlined and well-structured from the bottom up to the high-profile Premier League, with clear-cut promotion and relegation criteria among other attributes.
The league affairs are transparent with transparent and fair management, and one can see why Srivaddhanaprabha saw the massive potential and invested so much money in order to pursue his dream.
Leicester City are now reputedly worth around £350m, but the legacy that this man has left behind is immeasurable. In terms of the effect he has had not only on the people of Leicester, but also on every single club around the world that no matter how small you are, you can make your dreams come true.
All you need is a sound, honest, transparent and streamlined league system in your country and you will attract investment, and your local communities will unite and grow, and the game of football can flourish.
There are lessons all around us every day where we can make the game of football great again in this amazing country, of South Africa. But do we have leaders who can identify these opportunities? More importantly, can plans be put in place to achieve them? Let the South African football dream again.
Coppola is a football coach, administrator and former professional player