Is Thailand in love with Leicester?

 Posted by at 5:16 AM
Mar 282016

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The Thai fans switching to Leicester

Leicester City are five points clear at the top of the Premier League and have just been confirmed as participants in a pre-season tournament featuring the world’s elite teams. Their transformation from Midlands also-rans to global power is well under way and nowhere is it more evident than in Thailand, the home of the club’s owners…

A year ago, as Leicester City languished at the bottom of the Premier League and looked almost certain to be relegated back to the Championship after just one season in the top tier, you could spend a couple of hours at the club shop in central Bangkok and not see a single customer.

The rows of blue shirts remained untouched, the games playing on the large-screen TV unwatched apart from by the staff, who had little else to do. By the end of last year, it had closed down.

The club’s owner, King Power, had done its best to raise the profile, plastering Leicester merchandise all over its shops at Bangkok’s busy international airport, where it has had an effective monopoly for the past decade on the duty-free spending of the more than 50 million passengers who pass through it.

But outside the airport it was hard to wean Thais off their affection for Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.

Today you cannot buy a Leicester shirt anywhere in Thailand. They have all sold out, and King Power has had to ask fans to order them from the UK.

Leicester’s fanbase in Thailand is growing and matchday at King Power HQ is quite a spectacle this season

The astonishing rise of the Midlands also-rans to league leaders this season is starting to impress Thai fans; even those who support other sides.

“I’m a Liverpool fan but secretly I’m rooting for Leicester to win the league,” said Sorrapat Sriparn, while watching his side Muan Thong United play. A few rows along, Suphanchai Ketbeungkan, a long-term Chelsea fan, said he was also inspired by the idea of a Thai-owned team that had been so close to relegation last season winning the title.

At a Sunday practice match in Bangkok, unable to buy the real thing, I was reduced to showing a picture of a Leicester shirt on my laptop to a Thai boys’ team during the half-time break. They all recognised it, and knew the club was Thai owned. Would they consider supporting Leicester? They were not so sure, a few hands going up tentatively. Most of them were, predictably enough, Manchester United or Liverpool supporters.

But if Leicester are to capitalise on this season’s success and cement a permanent place in the hearts of Thai football fans, its owner is going to have to invest more in raising the profile among younger supporters, whose loyalties are not yet fixed.

Phra Prommangkalachan is one of half a dozen Thai Buddhist monks who have been making regular trips to England to bless Leicester’s pitch over the past three years

At the end of last year, the club began what it calls football clinics, sending coaches led by Thailand’s best known goalscorer, Kiatisak ‘Zico’ Senamuang, to several Thai schools to train young players, with a select few to be sent to the UK. But Arsenal, for example, have a substantial and well-established soccer school in Bangkok, used by hundreds of children every week.

“Leicester’s rise has made a strong impression on the fans,” says football commentator Aekarach Kengtooktang. “But it will take a lot more time to build up their fan base. Big teams like Manchester United or Liverpool have earned their fans in Thailand from their performances and their fame over decades. This is a historic moment in the English Premier League but it has been only two years, so we have to wait and see.”

Football is huge in Thailand, despite the lacklustre record of the national team and the often scrappy quality of local games – although there has been a marked improvement in recent years and a subsequent rise in support for local teams. Some Thais follow the Spanish, German or Italian leagues, but most prefer the more physical game played by English sides.

As a consequence, some Thai tycoons have seen buying an English club as a way to raise their status and profile at home.

The trend was started by the controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who bought Manchester City in 2007 after he had been forced from office by a military coup, but then sold the club a year later. Thailand’s biggest beer maker, Chang, has had a sponsorship deal with Everton since 2004. Then, following King Power’s purchase of Leicester in 2010, the country’s biggest seafood processor bought Sheffield Wednesday, and another Thai consortium bought Reading.

Leicester players Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel are increasingly recognisable figures in Thailand

It is starting to look as though King Power has hit the jackpot.

The company’s virtual monopoly on duty-free sales in Thailand is controversial, and the owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, is publicity-shy – he refused an interview for this article.

But King Power has had to respond to the growing fan base in Thailand, and now lays on free food and beer at its futuristic headquarters in Bangkok for the big games. Lightly clad models bearing strategically placed blue fox tattoos mingle with the family crowd, posing with footballs and life-size cut-outs of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.

Asked why they now support the Siamese Foxes – as they like to call them here – patriotic pride in seeing a Thai-owned side doing so well loomed large. And the roar from the crowd when Mahrez scored the only goal against Crystal Palace was every bit as loud as anything at Selhurst Park.

Everything now hangs on what happens in Leicester’s seven remaining games. But if they do pull off the fairytale ending, they can tap into a bottomless well of passion in this football-mad nation of 68 million. The £39m King Power spent acquiring the club six years ago, and the £100m or so it has spent since, look like spectacularly good investments.

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Rooney deserves better – Hodgson

 Posted by at 4:58 AM
Mar 282016
Wayne Rooney was appointed England captain by Roy Hodgson in August, 2014

England manager Roy Hodgson insists captain Wayne Rooney is still a major part of his Euro 2016 plans – even though his side beat World Cup holders Germany without the striker.

Manchester United forward Rooney was sidelined by a knee injury as Hodgson’s team came from two goals down to win Saturday’s friendly 3-2, with the younger generation flourishing in his absence in Berlin.

Tottenham’s 19-year-old Dele Alli was man of the match and his partnership with club-mate Harry Kane continued to develop as the striker, 22, scored the goal that started England’s comeback.

Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy increased the pressure on Rooney’s place with his first England goal but Hodgson said: “I have to repeat Wayne is our captain and he has captained the team extremely well in the past two years.

“He took us through a qualifying campaign where we had a complete success with 10 wins out out 10. It doesn’t please me too much that it is suggested now that the moment he is injured and doesn’t play he gets jettisoned in some way. He doesn’t deserve that.”

Rooney’s biggest challenge

Harry Kane has scored four goals in nine appearances for England

If Hodgson keeps faith with Kane and Alli in their current positions – and bearing in mind Vardy was also on the scoresheet and Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck was back in England colours for the first time in a year after injury problems – Rooney is facing the biggest challenge to his place in more than a decade.

Hodgson insists the 30-year-old, England’s record goalscorer with 51 goals in 109 appearances, will not allow the new breed to rest on their laurels.

He said: “When he comes back and is fit again he is going to be putting enormous pressure on these players, just like these players will be putting enormous pressure on him – and that is the situation we are looking forward to.”

Alli still has to improve

Dele Alli won his fifth England cap in Germany

Alli’s display and his partnership with Kane is emerging as a key option for Hodgson, leaving questions over where Rooney could fit in.

“Dele’s performance against France in November was a man-of-the-match performance as well,” said Hodgson.

“He was fantastic in that game and if anything it has pleased me even more that he has come out and done exactly the same again, and what is more he has done it in perhaps even more difficult circumstances.

“At the moment, all you can see with Dele is a very, very bright future. It is up to him and his club but he has got to make certain he doesn’t think ‘I am the complete and finished article’. You cannot be the complete and finished article at 19 – not if we are talking about winning tournaments.

“You need a little bit more experience and games behind you. I’m not trying to detract from his performance. We thought he was excellent from the first minute to the last. He is getting a lot of praise and I hope he enjoys it because he truly deserves it.”

Is Hodgson changing his approach?

Roy Hodgson has been England coach since May 2012

The emergence of a crop of exciting young players, and the brand of football they produce, has led to suggestions Hodgson is altering his approach to the game.

The 68-year-old denies that is the case.

“No, not at all,” said Hodgson. “Unfortunately – and I don’t know when I got it – but at some stage I was told I’m conservative in some way and that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

“I don’t have it in Italy, I don’t have it in Switzerland, just in England. I believe that is what is said. It is not true in my opinion and certainly I have never felt that way.

“I have worked for one or two teams, of course, where we have been nowhere near as good as the opposition and we have been put onto the back foot.

“But whenever I have had the team that has had the ability to take control of the game, take the initiative and take the game to the opposition, all of my teams have done that.”

Nothing to prove

That being the case, Hodgson insists he is not motivated by a desire to prove people wrong.

He added: “You can’t disprove what people say or think about you, you can only do your work and hope the work you do with the players will give some sort of reward or success.

“Then people can have their opinions. It has never bothered me at all – I haven’t started thinking ‘someone said that, I better do something different’.

“I think I have been, not quite a model of consistency throughout the 40 years, but there haven’t been many ups and downs or twists and turns.

“I believe in playing football, I believe in taking the initiative and you can only win things if you have a team who can take the game to the opposition. It is difficult to win things in the long term if you go on the back foot.”

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Mar 282016
An injured Jack Butland gifted Toni Kroos Germany’s opener before being taken off on a stretcher

England goalkeeper Jack Butland is likely to miss Euro 2016 after scans showed he fractured his ankle in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Germany.

Butland hurt himself moments before conceding Germany’s opener in Berlin’s Olympiastadion and he was in tears as he was taken off on a stretcher.

The Stoke player, 23, said he is “absolutely devastated”.

England manager Roy Hodgson will name his squad for the Euros, which begin in less than 11 weeks, on 12 May.

England face the Netherlands at Wembley in a friendly on Tuesday but Hodgson has no plans to call up a replacement for Butland, who had himself replaced the injured Joe Hart as first-choice keeper on Saturday.

Southampton’s Fraser Forster came on for Butland during the game on Saturday and will start against the Dutch, while Burnley’s Tom Heaton is also in the squad.

Capped four times by his country, Butland has been ever-present for Stoke in the Premier League this season.

The exact length of his recovery period is not yet known.

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