Away from Home
The exiled Thai billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra explains what it was like to own Manchester City
Paris, France, May 2016
Thaksin Shinawatra watched Leicester City’s remarkable Premier League campaign far from home. Powerless for almost a decade, the former Thai prime minister had not returned to his homeland since 2008, when the military junta froze his assets and vowed to arrest him on corruption and other charges the moment he set foot on Thai soil. What followed was a nomadic existence, looking for a country that would take him in. The UK revoked his visa, leading to Thaksin withdrawing his request for political asylum. Others didn’t want to know. Instead, it was left to the UAE, and in particular Dubai, to offer Thaksin sanctuary, both for himself and what remained of his fortune.
But on this sunny spring day, Thaksin Shinawatra is not in Singapore or Beijing or the Middle East. He is sitting in his hotel in Paris. He is staying in a plush suite with a low-key, private entrance and a Thai security guard – complete with earpiece and a dead-eyed scowl – that gives the impression that a head of state is being protected inside. Thaksin is sitting on his sofa in an immaculately ironed white shirt, looking exactly the same as the fresh-faced billionaire who had shaken up Thailand’s staid political scene when he entered the great game in the mid-1990s. “I remember a state visit to London, and Prince Philip and I talked about the drug war,” Thaksin says as we sat down to talk. “He surprised me. He told me I should decriminalise drugs. All drugs!” He laughs with a little shake of the head. Thaksin couldn’t do that, of course, but he was amused by how an elderly member of the British royal family might in fact be a radical libertarian. Thaksin has many stories like this: moments when he was treated like a statesman, like an equal to the other rulers of the world.
Now he is in Paris, escaping the intense Dubai summer heat, taking it easy, spending time with his grandchildren and checking up on some of his new investments ‒ small sums sunk into biomedical research and a few other stocks he declined to name before the conversation turned to his favourite topic: football. “What happened with Leicester is the combination of a good coach, good team spirit and moral support from the owner. It is not about the stars and very expensive players and coaches,” says Thaksin proudly. Thaksin knew the hard way the game that had to be played to survive in Thai business and didn’t bear any grudges at the way his former colleagues and supporters had lined up behind the current regime. Business was survival, and survival was business. “He is very Thai and has a [Thai] touch; he has a good touch with the players and coach, and they work together like a family,” he says of the late Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the billionaire Thai businessman who followed Thaksin in to English club ownership with Leicester City and secured an unlikely Premier League title in the process. “Also, he brings some Thai monks in to give a kind of belief, faith that you play better. And they really played better!” He quickly clarifies what he has said, just in case anyone got the impression that Jamie Vardy had embarked on a spiritual awakening in Bangkok. “They are not Buddhist! After they did a ceremony, they feel confidence. It is psychology. Everything is about psychology.”
We soon start talking about Thaksin’s own football experience. “You know Ranieri? I once interviewed him and decided to hire him,” he says, referencing his time as the first Thai owner of a Premier League club. “But the agent said please change to Sven [-Göran Eriksson]. Because Sven was more famous at that time.” Thaksin liked the exposure being owner of Manchester City gave him. He could entertain his allies and brag in front of his foes. He could show his love for Thailand’s king on the city of Manchester’s big screens and broadcast it all around the world, infuriating the military in the process. But he says he bought Manchester City for the purest of motives. “After I was deposed by coup d’état , I stayed in London. I love football. I was thinking about it in 2003 and then came Manchester City. And I really wanted to own a team. I was watching the Premier League for many years. And then I decided to buy it.”
Thaksin’s stay in London had of course been enforced. In September 2006, while he was in New York for the UN general assembly, tanks rolled onto the streets of Bangkok, the military declared martial law and suspended the constitution. It had been a long time coming. Thaksin had been embroiled in a multifaceted political crisis over the previous year that had seen him accused of everything from abuse of power to corruption and self-enrichment, and even of employing black
magic to replace the statue of the creator god Brahma with one of his own. But his downfall wasn’t at the hands of a shaman. A law was passed that allowed 100 per cent foreign ownership of Thai
telecommunications companies. Within days, Thaksin’s Shin Corp was sold to a company owned by the Singaporean government. Thaksin’s wife and family made US$1.88bn on the deal while minimising their tax bill. The following uproar sparked protests for and against Thaksin, pitting different Buddhist sects, cities and regions against each other, largely splitting the urban, royalist middle-class anti-Thaksin factions against the poor, populous rural areas of Thaksin support. When the levee broke in September, Thaksin’s rule came to an end.
By 2007 he was in London, thinking about the future. It was then that Thaksin had been offered “two or three” other clubs to buy. But he liked Manchester City. He knew what kind of pull the Manchester brand had after being presented with a special shirt back in 2001 by Sir Alex Ferguson when Manchester United played the Thai national team in Bangkok in front of a packed crowd. United were, of course, now completely out of his price range, even if he did have a fortune estimated by Forbes to be US$2bn back then. Still, City weren’t just cheaper, Thaksin believed that the team perhaps distilled the spirit of the city better than its red half. “In Manchester itself, the fans support City more than United,” he says. “And City had a new and good stadium. At the time, the team was about to be relegated every season. And I thought, 'If we gave a decent investment…' So I decided to invest.”
Thaksin bought the club in June 2007 for what is now considered a knockdown price: just £81.6m. Even though he had passed the Premier League’s infamously lax Fit and Proper Persons Test, there had been uproar over the persistent allegation of human rights abuses that international rights groups had levelled at him, connected to his war on drugs, the jailing of political opponents and the high body count from suppressing an Islamist uprising in the south of the country. It was already well known that the Thai junta’s Assets Examination Committee had requested that Thaksin’s assets were frozen over “alleged conflicts of interest, corruption and related offences in Thailand”. The committee was due to make its final decision a month after the sale, with Thaksin “vigorously defending all such allegations.” The Premier League let the sale pass as Thaksin had been charged but not convicted of the charges in front of him. Today, Thaksin bristles when asked about the allegations. “When I was deposed by coup d’état the military tried to tarnish me by giving bad info out. They control the mass media in Thailand,” he states. “They [the British press] believe one-sided, negative things. Then they have a bad impression from there … [the Thai military] formed a committee and investigated me. Those who died related to drugs was not that high. Maybe 2,000 in total.”
Thaksin’s unveiling was the stuff of legend. He had arranged for a bevy of Thai singers to perform in Manchester’s Albert Square. Free Thai beer and noodles were handed out and Thaksin himself took to the stage. He was warmly received, but became a cult hero shortly afterwards when he took to the mic and butchered a rendition of ‘Blue Moon’. By the time he was finished, he had been christened ‘Frank’ Shinawatra. In an almost-perfect start to Thaksin’s reign, City began the season with three wins out of three, including a 1‒0 victory over Manchester United, a game that Thaksin says is his finest memory of owning the club. “It was exciting because as an owner, when you sat in
the stadium you play every ball. Your foot, pssshht,” Thaksin mimics kicking the ball by jerking his head forward and raising his knee. “When you win you are very happy and when you lose you are huuuur,” Thaksin slumps in his seat as if a malfunctioning robot had been abruptly shut down. “It is up and down.”
The human rights concerns melted in the background when Manchester City were winning. Thaksin’s political career might have been sinking fast back home, but in Manchester he had found an alternative to that itch that politicians need scratching: universal adulation. “You are proud when you stand in the stadium with a lot of fans,” he remembers. “It is very similar to politics. If you make people happy you are proud of serving them.” Yet Thaksin’s reign was beset with problems from the start, not least with the prevailing English football culture. “I was told, 'Don’t get involved with the manager as they have 100 cent right to handle everything',” he recalls, making the statement sound utterly ridiculous in the process. “I said, 'As a businessman, I invest, why shouldn’t I have some say?' But the lesson with Leicester City confirms my belief that the owner should get involved, but not with a heavy hand: psychological support, moral support. The players are successful young men. Sometimes they can’t handle themselves as they get paid a lot of money every week. Then back home they are very poor: mother, father, cousin asking for money. It is a lot of pressure.”
Matters came to a head when Thaksin returned to Thailand. His relationship with Eriksson had become frostier from the turn of the year. “In the first half of the season the relationship was very good,” he says. “I went back to Thailand, the team was getting worse. The football was not football at that time. I was watching from a distance and I was very upset. When I came back I said I had to talk to him in such a way that it turned a bit bitter, so I ended the contract.”
City fans were not happy and the sacking effectively ended Thaksin’s honeymoon period with the club, which had been bolstered by home and away league victories against Manchester United. But what really ended Thaksin’s career was his wife’s conviction on corruption charges. Rather than face the three-year jail sentence, the two fled. They would later divorce, with Thaksin staying on the road ever since. “It was very unlucky for me,” he says. “After I bought the club, I committed the investment and I had my assets frozen.” He lamented the timing in a way that suggested he hadn’t really gotten over losing the club. “To own a club in the Premier League you have to have deep, deep, deep, deep pockets. Not just one, but many deep pockets. It burns your money quickly. I feel very sad I had to sell. I had no money after they froze my money. I had to borrow here and there.”
He had to sell the club quickly. The club was costing him “£4 million a month” in wages and instalments on earlier player transfers. It was then that Thaksin heard that a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family had been on the lookout to buy a club. At that time, Thaksin says, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan – a little-known member of the Abu Dhabi royal family who nonetheless held significant sway in the UAE government – had been trying to buy Liverpool but the deal was blocked. “I approached the agent, a woman: 'We are selling much cheaper than Liverpool!'” There is still no official figure on the amount of money Sheikh Mansour paid Thaksin Shinawatra for Manchester City, but it is believed to be around £150 million, a huge profit on his original investment, one that Thaksin readily admits (but refuses to confirm the specific amount). “Good price, made a profit,” he says sharply. Thaksin’s time at City was over and his time in the political and football wilderness had begun.
He would like to get back into football club ownership, he says, but the value of Premier League clubs now is too great to make a decent profit. He has been approached, he says, by a few Premier League clubs willing to be sold for free, if he was willing to invest, a deal that – in today’s climate of exploding TV deals and buyers dominated by Chinese investors – sounds too good to be true. Value could be found instead in the second tier of English football, where Thai owners Dejphon Chansiri at Sheffield Wednesday and Narin Niruttinanon at Reading have moved in, both having made their fortunes in fish. “We have no tuna in Thailand, but his family gets rich on tuna!” laughs Thaksin, referring to Chansiri’s multibillion tuna-canning fortune as a sign of Thai business acumen. (Niruttinanon, along with Lady Sasima Srivikorn and Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth, sold the vast majority of their shares to a Chinese buyer in 2017.)
Yet one thing stays with Thaksin above all else from his time in charge of Manchester City, something he saw in the first few weeks of his ownership that seemed so alien, yet also reflected something uniquely English. “When I went to work in the club, I saw a group of people and they wore all black, like after a funeral,” he recalls. “I asked them, 'What can I help you with?' They replied, 'We are waiting for the official to put the ashes of my husband on the pitch.' My god, I never knew this before. He [the deceased] had been a fan of City for 42 years. He passed away and asked to have his ashes put on the pitch.” Thaksin seemed as dumbstruck by that today as he had been nine years ago.
Thaksin’s time has passed. He is 69 years of age and probably too old for a political return to Thailand, although many feel his influence is still strong within the country. After the coup that removed him died down, the military promised to return to civilian rule, but not before trying to game the constitution and political parties to ensure that they still held the whip hand in Thai politics, but with the veneer of political legitimacy. The plan backfired. Instead, Thaksin’s sister stood for election as head of the Puea Thai Party. Yingluck Shinawatra won the election in 2011. The military had suspected that another hand lay behind her party, tapping into exactly the same constituency – the rural poor outside of Bangkok – as her brother had. In fact, many in Thailand saw her election as little more than a cover for Thaksin’s own political ambitions and, more importantly, his route back to his homeland.
Yingluck too was toppled by a military coup in 2014, creating the political climate in Thailand today ‒ Thailand remains under military rule, with freedoms being restricted on an almost daily basis: censorship, the arrest of human rights activists and the use of “re-education” camps for people who disagree with the path that the government has chosen. I ask Thaksin about a news story I saw in Thailand concerning how the military had seized thousands of red bowls earmarked for distribution during the Thai New Year celebrations, each embossed with an esoteric message from Thaksin himself. The men caught with the bowls were sent for re-education. “They have a lot of weapons: why are they scared of the bowl?” he says, chuckling to himself again. “If my name pops up, they are scared. I am an old man. I have nothing. I have no gun. They should not be afraid of me. They should talk to me. I’m not asking for myself. I am asking for my people and the country.”
If Thaksin’s rule had taught others one thing, it was that if they wanted to retain their fortune, then they shouldn’t enter politics. On the other hand, buying a foreign football club, especially an English club whose subsequent success could be hailed in honour of the king, will make you untouchable. At least, until Thailand’s dangerous political sands shift once more.
Unlike Thaksin, none of the other leading businessmen in Thailand appear to hold political ambitions. “Politics is not good for a very successful businessman. You have a lot to lose. Politics in developing countries is good for those with nothing to lose. It is good for the people, but not politicians. They are jealous. You have more, and they think money is everything. Actually, money is not everything.” Thaksin’s foray into politics might have helped him expand his fortune at first, but he has lost more than he made. In fact, the only thing that he can point to in terms of a healthy profit in recent years was selling Manchester City. “In 1993, Forbes valued me at US$2 billion. I was in the top 20 businessmen in Asia. At the end of '94 [when Thaksin entered politics] I voluntary declared assets of US$2 billion. Now I have US$1 billion left.” The cost of Thaksin Shinawatra's political ambition was US$1 billion. Yet by studying Thaksin’s blueprint the Thai super-rich have learned what works and what doesn’t. What had once been seen as a route to securing power has now dovetailed with what is happening in China with its huge investment in European football. Football-club ownership is about sycophancy and wealth retention. A case could be made that, if it hadn’t been for Thaksin’s purchase of Manchester City, as flawed and as imperfect as that had been, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha would never have found a path to the East Midlands. But Thaksin did not attend Leicester’s victory parade, even though he was a relatively short flight away by private plane. “I congratulated him before,” he says, but it was impossible for Thaksin to show his face. It would have been interpreted by the military regime back home as tacit support from Vichai for his old mentor. “I am a political target,” remarks Thaksin as we say our goodbyes. “I do not want anyone to be in trouble because they are paranoid over me.”
Thaksin Shinawatra goes back to work, checking his stock portfolio and dreaming of a route back home.
This is an edited extract from The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football's Super-Rich, published by Bloomsbury.