Asian Football Interviews

Meet Oriol Mohedano: The Tiger Tactician

Football in Cambodia is less renowned than other leagues in Southeast Asia, but make no mistake, it is a sleeping giant about to wake from its long slumber. Cambodians are passionate about the sport, and as more funds are being invested into the football landscape, it will certainly grow expediently.

Only 34 years old, don’t let his age fool you, Oriol has an impressive resume and after coaching various clubs in Europe, he has made Angkor Tigers his home. For the past 4 years, he has overseen the development of one of Siam Reap’s finest teams. Interestingly, Seut Baraing, a former interviewee, is currently on loan at the Tigers from Phnom Penh Crown, a team that Thierry Bin and Anthony Aymard played for. Yes, I’m beginning to see how my interviews are all extensions of a bigger story at hand but that is an article for another day.

Oriol Mohedano is probably one of the most passionate head coaches in the Southeast Asian footballing landscape.

Pre-Tigers: The Beginnings

Oriol was in love with football while he was still a young boy growing up in Spain, but as he got older, he realized playing football professionally was a privilege he could not afford. Injuries hampered him early into his career, and when he was 21 years old, he had to retire from the beautiful game. But it wasn’t the end of the football dream, that just changed in direction. He may have hung up his boots but he swapped those for a tracksuit. Coaching became his calling, and he was thrust into the field at a relatively young age.

He had completed his UEFA ‘B’ License when he was 21 years old, and he began his career at a local club, coaching the under-15 side. He swiftly progressed through the age groups and landed his first big gig with Gimnàstic de Tarragona [currently playing in the Segunda División B], where he was appointed as an assistant coach. Despite the wealth of knowledge that he gained during his stint with Nàstic, coaching in the lower divisions of Spain was not a sustainable means of income.

As such, at 25 years old, Oriol made the decision to move abroad for better opportunities, and this would kickstart his overseas coaching journey. After leaving Spain, Switzerland became his first destination where he had a real education under famed Swiss footballer Massimo Lombardo at Servette FC’s youth setup. Once again, Oriol would be an assistant manager – this time of Servette’s Under 18 side. Back then, the first team was playing in the second division but the under-18 side was doing phenomenally well. In fact, they won the under-18 league and qualified for the UEFA Youth League the subsequent season.

Interestingly, one player that Oriol worked with was Jérémy Guillemenot. Guillemenot moved to FC Barcelona. After spending some time with the Catalonian giants’ ‘B’ team, he would move to Rapid Vienna in Austria before returning to Switzerland with FC St. Gallen.

“At first, it was – as any language or skill – challenging but working with Massimo Lombardo who was a true mentor for me. I mean he played against Real Madrid when he was a player. That one season with Switzerland was really good for me. It was not only the feedback that I received was good but the whole experience of being part of them. You are growing with them and that motivated me to find more opportunities to grow with other teams as well.”

And opportunities he would find.

Finland became the next destination for Oriol, who was then only 26 years old, but instead of a youth setup, he yearned for experience with a professional squad (the senior team).

“Finland’s football is in a really good stage of development. They are inspired by English and French football and they are moving forward with that idea and philosophies. I was there as an assistant coach role and I really continued my education as a coach in Finland.”

Photo credits: Oriol Mohedano

However, his time with FC Legirus Inter in Finland was short-lived because not long after, an opportunity came knocking from Cambodia.

in 2016, Phnom Penh Crown’s Swiss manager Sam Schweingruber, unfortunately, got involved in a serious motorcycle crash that almost killed him and therefore had to take time off to recuperate from his injuries. And thus, there existed a gaping hole that someone needed to fill temporarily but swiftly. Oriol Mohedano was the man for the job. The Spaniard was appointed as interim head coach until the end of the season.

“It was pretty hard because I knew this [opportunity] did not come from my success but instead came from [someone else’s misfortune]. I took up the challenge nonetheless and it was an amazing experience to be a head coach and I managed people like Seut Baraing and Thiery Bin – players you know very well (acknowledgements to the interviews I conducted with both of them haha). It was a really surprising experience for me culturally as well but footballing wise, I was able to adapt pretty quickly, and then when [head coach] Sam was ready to return, I had two opportunities presented to me. I could either move back to Europe for other opportunities or remain in Phnom Penh Crown as an assistant coach. I decided to return to Finland because I felt there were better opportunities there.”

Once again, Oriol would return to Finland where he would be an integral part of the SJK Seinäjoki management as he helmed the B team, SJK Seinäjoki II. He was also the assistant coach of the first team and during his stint with SJK Seinäjoki, the Finnish club played in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds and it was a moment that is still etched in his memory.

Photo credits: Oriol Mohedano

However, after tasting what it felt briefly with Phnom Penh Crown, the desire to become a head coach proved too strong, and not long after, Oriol went scouring for a head coach position.

“Being a head coach gives you the freedom to make the decisions. When I am the assistant coach, I usually provide inspiration or information to the head coach but this is so limited. You cannot decide. You must provide. Of course, there are also a lot of stressful situations but I still prefer that because of the freedom.”

In 2017, once again the chance to become head coach position came knocking in and Oriol did not think twice, he accepted it with open arms – the best decision he has made so far. After all, he has spent close to four years with the team and has loved every second of it.

Angkor Tigers – Culture and Football Philosophy

Strangely, Oriol had no real issues assimilating into the Cambodian culture and insisted that his love for travelling and living in places around the world has helped him adapt quickly to new surroundings. Interestingly, he points to his upbringing as a source for this appreciation for other cultures. Growing up, Oriol’s parents travelled a lot as tourists and that helped Oriol expand his horizons. He believes that it was this appreciation of culture has also allowed him to spot similarities with Cambodian culture with his own. He feels that many foreigners have issues assimilating because of the conflicts in culture or the inability to comprehend culture.

While culture has helped him assimilate swiftly, it also enabled Oriol to quickly notice the issues surrounding Cambodian football.

“The first thing I noticed was the non-perfection [of football]. This is a sport, and there is naturally a lot of mistakes. However, it’s important to focus on the number of mistakes per game committed by the player, the manager, the staff, etc. In the first week, I was amazed – negatively, of course – but it gave me a point to start. I noticed how there were too many transitions without consequence. So I targeted that by teaching the players how to control the mistakes and minimize the chance of mistake. I also noticed the fans’ reactions. They cheer for the team during offensive moments. They cheer for the team when they see something nice like a player performing a skill or a beautiful freekick. The other times though, they’re silent and maybe even sleeping, so that’s very important. That’s information for the coaches! You must know what your supporters want.”

Oriol’s emphasis of the spectator atmosphere is an important point. According to him, he’s seen how having a stadium filled with 7,000 fans as compared to 500 makes a real difference to the performance of the teams and it really drives home the point of home ground advantage.

Photo credits: Angkor Tigers

Having spent four years with Angkor Tigers, I couldn’t help but ask Oriol what kind of philosophy he imparts on his players, and his response is truly interesting. Instead of coming in and introducing a particular brand of football from the get-go, Oriol has gradually incorporated a football philosophy that you see Angkor Tigers play today.

“When I first came to Tigers and assessed the squad, I realized we needed to be pragmatic. We needed to be simple and do simple things but we need to be brace. And that is the base for me, the bravery to play with freedom and play offensively. So here’s the thing for me, I prefer blooding in the younger generations who can play in the top level. You can see that in top leagues and you can see that in the top level. These young players are brave and they learn so quick. I believe that improvement happens from below not from above – what is going to happen and not what has happened before.

“In Spanish football culture, you learn that when you have the ball, you will always have options. I learned and got inspiration from Guardiola while he was at FC Barcelona. Of course, not every club can play that exact style. For example, if a club is sat at the bottom of the league, you can’t play that kind of football, you need to be pragmatic and probably play some kind of possession game and not play a finer style of football. I tell my boys every time that we celebrate every goal because the goal is the product of our attack and if we attack, it means we have the ball. This is why I always emphasize to my players to have the ball in possession so that they can create something.

“It’s not that I only incorporate Spanish elements in Angkor Tigers but I also add elements from every country I have coached in. For example, in Switzerland, I’ve seen more transitional play and the instilling ideas of what to do in specific moments. From Finland, I learned about their culture of fitness and really taking care of their bodies and having a strong mindset. So I added all these elements from my past gradually and I still do. When we were in lockdown, I told the players we need to be like the Finnish footballers and we focused a lot on fitness.”

Transfer Talk: Seut Baraing & Ata Inia

Of course, I couldn’t resist and I wanted to find out why Oriol brought Seut Baraing on loan this season from Phnom Penh Crown.

Photo Credits: Angkor Tigers

“I wanted to bring in the best players and Seut is one of the best. I see his style helps the team create more interesting offensive situations and this comes from within himself. He is brave. Of course, he has limits in his height but because of this limit [height], he performs even better than other taller fullbacks. He also has an amazing crossing ability and that’s a huge asset. Baraing also has the ambition to grow and I value that a lot. I don’t believe in playing in your comfort zone and Baraing is committed to being the best. Of course, he is also interested in helping the club because this club belongs to Siam Reap, where he is from.

One other Tigers player that caught my eye was Ata Inia. The Tongan heritage player reportedly becomes the first professional Tongan player after signing a contract with Angkor Tigers.

However, he wasn’t discovered this season as many people believe. Oriol mentions how Ata was based in Australia and had actually travelled to Siam Reap for trials in the 2020 pre-season. During the three-week trial, his pace, mentality and athleticism caught Oriol’s attention. However, Oriol believed that Ata was too young for such a massive jump. However, in 2021, Ata kept pushing for a move and Oriol believed it was time for the move to materialize. And what a signing he has proven to be. Oriol believes that Ata is a key member of the Tigers squad and his presence on the pitch certainly makes the team that much stronger.

Oriol also believes that many other Cambodian players have a huge amount of potential that is waiting to be tapped on. He thinks that Cambodian players should try their best and venture overseas for opportunities because that is the best way for these footballers to grow. Where to then?

If it were up to Oriol, he would create a market in the lower rungs of Europe because it provides an ideal platform for growth, not just for Cambodians but also for Southeast Asians as well. That being said, having a strong mindset is important.

Goals and The Future?

Photo credits: Angkor Tigers

Currently, Oriol’s goal is a simple one: to finish as high as possible in the Cambodian League table. It will be challenging to fight for the title, but Oriol believes that the team needs to take each game by game. However, he isn’t just concerned about collecting points but rather is focused on the mentality behind how the team actually plays the games. The Spaniard believes that the players need to enjoy the process and not suffer. Changing this mentality by instilling confidence is another goal that Oriol has for this campaign. Oriol’s other objective is to strengthen team cohesion, which he believes is a continuous process and is not something you can remove your foot from the pedal.

In the long run, Oriol hopes to coach in other countries to help incorporate new cultural and footballing elements in his philosophy. At the same time, he is also open to helping Angkor Tigers grow. What is certain is that his future seems interesting.

To end off, I’m letting you in on a secret that Oriol shared.

Oriol has a lifelong goal. As someone who loves to travel, the Tigers head coach wants to coach in every continent around the world.

If that comes to fruition, it would be certainty fitting for a man who appreciates cultures like Oriol.

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