Football: Garlands and crowds greet Foxes in Thailand

Football: Garlands and crowds greet Foxes in Thailand
Leicester City's manager Claudio Ranieri and players Kasper Schmeichel and Shinji Okazaki gesture in a traditional greeting as they arrive with the team at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, May 18, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

BANGKOK - Thai fans mobbed newly crowned English Premier League champions Leicester City as they arrived on Wednesday for a publicity blitz after their fairytale title triumph.

They also hoped to banish the memory of a sex tape scandal that marred a visit a year ago to the homeland of their billionaire owner.

Scores of fans - dubbed the "Siamese Foxes" - and a frenzied local media pack swarmed the champions at Bangkok's main airport on Wednesday morning, greeting them with requests for selfies and chants of "Leicester City, Leicester City!"

Manager Claudio Ranieri, captain Wes Morgan, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and forward Shinji Okazaki led the team, beaming as they made a choreographed Thai bow - or "wai" - with garlands of jasmine around their necks.

But star players Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and Danny Drinkwater were not among the Wednesday morning arrivals, with the two English players called up this week for international duty.

Football-mad Thailand has fallen for Leicester after the astonishing success story of a club with deep links to the kingdom.

The Foxes are owned by well-connected but publicity-shy, Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.

His duty-free King Power brand is emblazoned across the shirts of the team, whose home ground in the English Midlands is named the King Power Stadium.

The devout Vichai has also repeatedly flown Buddhist monks to the UK to bless the players and stadium.

Most Thais knew little about the one-time minnows before Vichai bought the club in 2010.

But Thais are readily changing - or at least doubling-up - their allegiances from perennial English favourites Manchester United and Liverpool, in step with Leicester's stunning rise.

"Now I'm half Liverpool, half Leicester," Max Akkhapracha, a 20-year-old student dressed in Foxes' kit, told AFP.

"It was a very exciting season, winning the premier league was just amazing." Ahead of the tour, club vice-chairman Aiyawatt 'Top' Srivaddhanaprabha, Vichai's son, warned his players to be on their best behaviour in a kingdom whose wild nightlife belies a deep-seated social conservatism.

A tour last summer ended in a public relations disaster for the King Power family.

Then, three young players including the son of former manager Nigel Pearson, were sacked after a racially charged sex tape featuring local women was leaked to British media.

Manager Pearson was quietly dismissed a few weeks later in an apparent dispute over his handling of the scandal, paving the way for the avuncular Ranieri to take charge and steer the club towards sporting glory.

"They (the players) are massive now and they want to say thank you to the Thai fans," Top recently told reporters.

"The players need privacy as well, but I've talked to them and they know they need to treat everything well," he said.

Leicester were 5,000-1 outsiders to win the title at the start of their campaign.

The team will have two days of press and publicity duties in Thailand as they continue to celebrate league victory.

The highlight will be an open-top bus tour of Bangkok on Thursday, although it was unclear how many fans will brave the searing afternoon sun to cheer the team on - or if the city's notoriously gridlocked roads will allow the team bus smooth passage.

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