*Samandeep Chouhan looks at the ill-fated goodwill tour of Leicester City to Thailand in July 2015. How does foreign ownership impact the local ambitions of an English Premier League Club?
When we think of the English Premier League we tend to think of passion, history, skill, celebrity and so forth. We think of players such Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and great clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. We think of the sudden riches of Chelsea and Manchester City and how quickly they turned around years of playing second fiddle, to winning major trophies.
Increasingly, however, when one thinks of English football one also thinks of any number of unsavoury incidents: whether it be racism on or off the pitch or fan violence. The beautiful game is also replete with ugly moments. In this essay, I’m interested in how English football accommodates the immoral behaviour of its players, and how the role of investors plays a part in the mediation of controversies. I use the recent case of Leicester City Football Club as a way to understand the tension between being a successful football club and being morally responsible.
Leicester City Football Club (founded 1884) prides itself on its rich history, economic stability, attractive football and its philanthropy. The club, a middle to lower team in the EPL, is owned by a Thai billionaire, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who bought the club in 2010. Foreign ownership of traditional English clubs is contentious amongst loyal and locally based fans. The case of Leicester City, however, has escaped much of the global media, in comparison with the far more notorious cases of Chelsea (owned by Roman Abramovich) and Manchester City FC (owned by City Football Group, headed by Khaldoon Al Mubarak). Yet, this apparent boon for the club, hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The club have recently been involved in a number of controversial incidents, with the club’s reputation suffering in the process. And, in an industry awash with cash (eg the £5Billion t.v. deal with Sky Sports), image, branding and reputation counts aplenty.
In order to capitalise on the links with Thailand and the huge supporter base for English football in Thailand, Leicester City went to Thailand as part of a goodwill tour, for the club to grow its commercial appeal. Tours to Southeast Asia, Australia or the US are an increasingly common pre-season for English clubs: the emphasis is less about playing quality football, but, more about gaining exposure to new markets.
The incident? Three players were recorded hurling racist remarks to a local girl who had reportedly performed sexual acts on the footballers. One of whom was the manager’s (at the time) son, James Pearson. The footage had been leaked after the trio, including Tom Hopper and Adam Smith had reportedly shared the explicit videos to friends back in the UK. The behaviour of the players was a grave affront and insult to the Srivaddhanaprapbha family. Multiple suggestions for what course of action the club should take was put forward from fans, board members, anti-racist institutions and even fellow clubs. Nonetheless, after an internal investigation, the trio were sacked from the club. This step was needed in order for the club to sustain its integrity and commercial aspirations. Protecting the club’s integrity was more important than keeping the promising young footballers. All three players were not, at the time, first team regulars. I can guarantee the players themselves are regretting their actions. Especially as they were due to be given bumper contracts.
A club statement, following typical corporate communication was issued. The statement acknowledged what had happened, dismissed the outcome and sought to promote the organisation:
Leicester City Football Club is acutely aware of its position, and that of its players, as a representative of the city of Leicester, the Premier League, the Football Association and the Club’s supporters. It is committed to promoting a positive message of community, family values and equality, and to upholding the standards expected of a Club with its history, tradition and aspirations.
Football Nous vs Marketability
In the aftermath of the incident Leicester City also sacked their somewhat controversial coach, Nigel Pearson, and replaced him with a more diplomatic and less volatile (and respected) coach, Claudio Ranieri. Pearson was known for his volatile temper, and, perhaps fearing any more negative publicity, the club opted for a safer option, who could support Leicester’s emerging status as a stable club. Pearson’s and Ranieri’s personalities had to support their knowledge and tactical nous as coaches.
Unfortunately, Leicester City Football Club was at the heart of further controversy, with their prized possession, Jamie Vardy allegedly making racist remarks in a casino on the 28th of July. The England international was pictured being aggressive to a fellow patron of the casino. Two very distinct incidents which has plagued the football club over the past 5 months. Rather than take disciplinary action as the above mentioned incident required, the club decided to let the player and his representative make a statement of apology. The two incidents were both racist; the latter, committed by Jamie Vardy, was not deemed a sackable offence.
So, in the wake of these controversies, how has Leicester City being performing in the 2015-16 EPL? From the get go of the 2015/16 season, Leicester City FC have been punching above their weight. They have dominated teams with Vardy himself being a catalyst with his aggressive demeanour and acute finishing ability. Currently sat at 6th in the table (as of 27th September 2015), the club’s owners must be thrilled. Perhaps, they have found the balance between punishing serious offenders, while letting others (i.e. Jamie Vardy) atone for their sins on the football field.
Accommodating the Lads
The increasing movement of English football into the margins of world football has presented a curious case of managing club image for Leicester City. Their foray into Thailand was a goodwill visit which quickly turned sour for the club. Lads in their mid-20s holidaying in Thailand and behaving badly is hardly uncommon. The celebrity of the players brought their racist behaviour into the global media and immediately compromising the values, ethics and standards that Leicester City seeks to uphold.
Leicester City FC have set a precedence in terms of what occurred after both incidents. What would have happened if one of the players in the Thailand incident was a prominent player? Would the outcome still be the same? Probably not. So I go back to the questions which were asked at the very start. Football clubs negotiate their own standards with their players. A player on the fringe of the team is more likely to be cut for a racist act, than someone who is yet to establish himself as a player. Yet, football is largely an arena for contesting, debating and arguing over opinions and values. That’s what makes it such a popular domain. The contemporary media addresses so much of the negativity portrayed towards sport whilst dismissing the positives it brings to society.
Samandeep Chouhan is PhD student at Coventry University. Samandeep is a sports enthusiast researching equality and diversity in British sport.
Twitter: @samchouhan19991 email: email@example.com