Asian Football Interviews

Grooming Thailand’s Future Stars – Meet Thailand U-19 Head Coach Salva Valero Garcia

If you have never heard of Salva Valero Garcia, then you may want to start remembering his name. Only 28 years old, he’s the current Thailand National U-19 Team head coach, and he’s responsible for grooming some of Thailand’s most promising prospects. I had the pleasure to speak to Salva on his career thus far and his thoughts on the Thai youth footballing landscape.

Mourino? Or Guardiola?

Growing up in Barcelona, Salva was a passionate FC Barcelona fan who used to head down to Camp Nou with his dad to religiously watch his beloved Barcelona play. He’d cry when the Catalans lose, and he hated Real Madrid with all his guts.

“I remember when Figo returned to Camp Nou [as a Madrid player], it was like meeting a girlfriend who had left you. It was the same feeling. Figo was my idol when I was growing up and so, when I saw him in that white T-shirt, I could not take it.”

However, this changed when he became a coach because football became his job and he lost that passion of being a fan. Instead, he focused more on the analytical side of the game. He still prefers Barca to win but he isn’t as crazy about the team as he once was.

While he was playing football competitively in school, he set his hearts on coaching during the emergence of José Mourinho and (later on) Pep Guardiola. The Mourinho-Guardiola rivalry ignited a passion for coaching. Specifically, the 2010 Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Inter Milan made Salva decide to seriously pursue coaching. Seated directly behind the Inter dugout, he witnessed first-hand how Mourinho was instructing and leading his players.

“That day, I was in love with Mourinho. Of course, I still love Guardiola. I love them both but that day, I decided that I wanted to be like them.”

From Spain to Thailand

At 16 years old, Salva managed at a local academy and helmed the under-7s and progressed through the age groups before being plucked by Sant Cugat FC to manage their U-16 team in 2014. Spells with UE Cornellà and EF Gavà would follow before he packed his bags for greener pastures abroad.

In April 2017, the Thai FA appointed Salva as head coach for the national under-16 side. At the tender age of 23, he had flown halfway across the globe to be part of an integral piece of Thailand’s football development. Impressed with his coaching prowess, Salva was appointed as the Thai under-14 national team manager the following year to groom the next generation of footballers and has progressively climbed through the age groups with this generation of footballers.

Yet, adapting to life in Thailand did take some time for a young Salva. After all, he was encountering new religions, new cultures, new foods and new languages. However, the biggest challenge was managing a relatively sizeable staff of 13 personnel – something he did not have to do at the academy level. Yet, it wasn’t long before he adapted and he has even learned to communicate in Thai – which has been a game-changer for him.

Photo Courtesy of Salva Valero Garcia

While he is currently the under-19/under-20 head coach, most of his players qualify for the under-17 and under-18 squads. Salva aims to qualify for the 2023 edition of the Under-20 World Cup, which he feels is a realistic target for Thailand. It certainly helps that the Thai FA would be implementing a new Under-21/reserve league starting this 2021-2022 season, which would help better prepare players. After all, the pandemic has forced the temporary suspension of youth competitions.

“Well, we could not have youth league competitions rake place for the past 1 and a half years due to COVID-19. So, we have more centralized training camps. We’ve already had two training camps with the under-18 boys this year and we were planning to have more but the COVID situation worsened here. So, the plan is to have another training camp in August. Maybe we will have the AFF Under-18 Youth Championship this September this year but it really depends on the pandemic as well.”

Transformational Thailand

Salva has seen how Thai youth football has become progressively organized since he first arrived in 2017. Back then, the lower tiers of youth football were rather disorganized, and certain age groups, such as the Under-10s and Under-12s, had limited competitions. With the Thai FA in charge of the youth leagues now, there is a structured competition system in place for players to progress through the age groups. With added competition across the age groups, Salva believes that the youth leagues are definitely stronger now and that they are producing more talented players.”

“Starting 2022, we will be even more organized and in the long run, youth football in Thailand will continue to improve a lot and the results will come in three or four years for ‘A’ team and I am sure. “

While Thai football is highly regarded in the Southeast Asian region, and to some extent in Asia, I couldn’t help ask how Thai youth footballers compare to youth footballers in Spain.

Photo Courtesy of Salva Valero Garcia

Well, Salva believes that up until the under-18 level, the levels are similar, and it’s after this age group where there is a huge divergence. It’s not just based on observations from having managed at similar levels in Spain as well. Interestingly, Salva has brought his players to Spain before and played against four La Liga academy teams – FC Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Girona FC and CD Leganés. Except for Barcelona, who are truly a class of their own, Salva’s team managed to win one of the games and lost the other two by a goal.

“After the age group of 18 to 19, many players are stopping their development here [in Thailand] and are not getting the minutes in the first-team. We don’t really have a good platform for youth players before they make that jump to the professional level. Most of these youth players either get loaned to third division teams or remain in their squads with zero minutes. So, this is an issue that we are trying to fix. With the upcoming under-21 competition, we can fix this problem. It will be similar to what the Serie A and Premier League have with their reserve teams where some senior players in the first team can play in this league.”

At this juncture, you might be thinking, is there no reserve league in Thailand?

Well, surprisingly, no, not anymore. Most Thai reserve teams played in the fourth tier of Thai Professional football [T4] before the Thai FA scrapped the level and merged it with Thai League 3, where reserve teams could not register to play.

Polishing Up Diamonds

Salva has managed some of Thailand’s brightest prospects. At the top of that list, in my opinion, has to be Buriram United wonderkid Suphanat Mueanta, who has not only regularly featured for the club but has also made 7 appearances and registered three goals for the senior national team. Turning 19 later this year, the future is bright for Suphanat, and Salva believes that a move to Europe would be possible. Yet, Suphanat Mueanta is the tip of the iceberg, and there are many other talented Thai prospects. Some other players to look out for include:

  • Chonburi left-back Chatmongkol Rueangthanarot, who has been called up to the national team
  • Chonburi attacking midfielder Channarong Promsrikaew who performed well in his trial with Segunda División side AD Alcorcón
  • Rajpracha F.C defender Chonnapat Buaphan who’s currently playing in Thai League 2
  • Wonderkid Nattakit Butsing, who is currently training with Bayern Munich

It certainly helps that Thai footballers have excellent platforms in Thai-owned Leicester City and OH Leuven to gain valuable European experience. In fact, Leuven’s B team has two players that Salva has coached previously in the national under-16 setup – Noppanan Thipaksorn and Thanathorn Namchan.

“The Thai players have already proved their ability in the J.League, so I hope more can go to Japan and follow the footsteps of Chanathip (Songkrasin), Theerathon (Bunmathan), and Teerasil (Dangda). The next challenge is to go to Europe and I hope to see a Thai player or Thai players succeed in a European league. I think it will come sooner than expected.”

Plans For the Future – Goal 2026?

For Salva, his immediate goal is to help Thailand achieve its footballing dreams of qualifying for the pinnacle competition in global football – The FIFA World Cup. Salva believes that the 2026 World Cup is a realistic target for Thailand, given the tournament’s expansion. With more slots given to the AFC, it is plausible for Thailand to make it to football’s biggest stage. However, he does stress the importance of preparing the current crop of youth footballers for that to materialise. The next world cup is in 5 years, and players in their late teens and early 20s will form the bulk of that squad. Nevertheless, Salva eventually wishes to become the head coach of a professional team.

“I’m working with the current generation to help them reach the World Cup, but my long term goal is to become a head coach of a first division team here in Asia and ideally after that, in Europe. That was my dream when I was around 14 to 15 years old. That was why I picked this job and I hope that I can make it.”

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