Asian Football Interviews

“I am Proud of My Boys” – Salvador Valero Garcia Defies Odds in AFF U-23 Championship

The Thailand national team showed their immense quality when featured in the 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup with a rather youthful side. If their recent exploits at the AFF U-23 championship are anything to go by, they certainly have a bright future ahead for the generations to come.

To the outsider, the job that Salvador Valero Garcia was tasked with was far from an easy one. The Thailand Football Association made a collective decision to field a mostly Thai U-20 team for the AFF U-23 Championship. Except for the team captain, who was 22 years old, the rest of the squad was below the age of 20 years. This meant that the bulk of the Thailand team would be facing opponents some three to four years older. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a youth team playing against a team comprised of an older age group would naturally be harder. As if when things couldn’t be more difficult, the Thailand national team were placed in arguably the most difficult group in the initial stage of the tournament alongside the Singapore and Vietnam U-23 sides. With such overwhelming odds stacked against them, some may have predicted an early exit for the young War Elephants. Yet, despite the circumstances they were placed in, Salva and his team marched on and quite remarkably, finished as runners-up of the 2022 AFF U-23 Championship.

I interviewed Salva last year about his journey with the Thailand FA, and following the conclusion of the tournament, I caught up with my Hermano to discuss his thoughts on Thailand’s performances and what the future holds for them.

An Opportunity To Continue Preparations For The Future

Many wondered why the Thailand Football Association decided to field the U-19 team for the tournament. A slew of different factors contributed to this decision.

“For starters, many of the Thai U-23 players are first-team key players or regulars with their various Thai League 1 and Thai League 2 teams,” mentions the Spaniard. “Given that the Thai League season is currently ongoing, it would have been difficult for clubs to release these players for the tournament.

“On top of that, it was the first time since September 2019 that these players had competed in a tournament. So we decided with the FA to send this U-19 team for this competition.”

It was certainly a bold move by the Thai FA to feature a team where most Thai players were three to four years younger than their opponents. However, Salva clearly relished in the opportunity and invested a lot of time scouting his opponents. He knew that his team was ready to seize this opportunity. After all, he has had years of experience working with most of the team.

Image Credits: FA Thailand

“There were a couple of players where this tournament marked the first time I worked with them but, for the bulk of the squad, I really know them,” adds Salva. “I have been training half of the squad since they were with the U-14 set-up so I am completely aware of them – their strengths and weaknesses. For some in the other half, I have been working with them for the past two years. Perhaps not as frequently due to COVID-19 but enough to understand what they can bring to the table.”

In that sense, and as Salva explains, preparations or plans to develop the next crop of Thailand’s finest began long ago, and this tournament served as another marker of progress. However, before the commencement of the competition, the Spanish head coach conducted a five-day training camp where he clearly outlines the strategy, tactics, and overall style he wanted his team to play. This camp was crucial for getting the players on the same page.

The Tournament In A Nutshell

Salva’s young War Elephants began their journey against the Singapore U-23 team and demonstrated true maturity to remain composed and come from behind after Ilhan Fandi broke the deadlock in the 15th minute. Port FC forward Teerasak Poeiphimai equalized in the 46th minute and some 11 minutes later, Niphitphon Wongpanya gave Thailand the lead. Not long after, Teerasak doubled his tally for the evening and gave Thailand that all-important 2 goal cushion to cruise to a comfortable 3-1 victory.

“Six of the starting eleven that evening were my players 4 years ago when I managed the Thai U-14 side,” shares Salva. “I was really proud for them to show the resolve that they did to bounce back after conceding an early goal. Equalizing before half-time was important but it was in the second half, where we started really strong. I mean we effectively killed the game with those two quick-fire goals.”

Their final group game fixture saw them lose narrowly to Vietnam in a 1-0 defeat, but they had done enough to qualify for the semi-finals as the best second-placed side of the tournament.

The War Elephants were matched with Laos, a team that defied the odds to reach the semifinals after overcoming a relatively strong Malaysia side in their group. Yet, Laos could not pull another upset and were defeated by Salva’s young team. Teerasak once again got on the scoresheet in the 14th minute and Kroekphon Arbram’s strike in the 52nd minute was enough to send Thailand to the final.

Image Credits: FA Thailand

However, it was not a fairytale finish for Thailand, as the War Elephants suffered yet a narrow defeat to Vietnam in the final. Losing 1-0 was surely painful, but Salva was proud of what the team had accomplished. Against the odds, his team showed true grit and spirit to finish the tournament as runners up.

“I told my boys to keep their heads up. I was proud of them. We might have lost the game but we accomplished so much. We are still developing but we need to continue fighting. If we keep fighting, we will go to the U-20 World Cup.”

Reasons For Success & Moving Forward

They may not have won the title but the War Elephants captured the attention of spectators who tuned in to watch them play. How did these players, who were mostly 3 to 4 years younger than their opponents, come out on top? This was a question that I could not help but ask throughout the tournament, and who better to ask than the man in charge.

“The most important reason why we did so well was that our team had a strong and clear identity. We faced many challenges, including going down 1-0 to Singapore, but because we have a clear identity, our performances were stable. Working together for 4 years has allowed us to build a high level of synergy and we all understand each other well. We don’t have to restart every tournament. We had already established a certain playing style and philosophy. Of course, I made some changes during this tournament and the players grasped it very quickly. I was really impressed by how they adapted to the challenge.”

On a personal note, Salva still aspires to be the head coach of a senior national team or a club that plays in the UEFA Champions League. However, as things stand, he has sights on helping Thailand reach greater heights. Next up for his squad is the AFF U-19 Championship where most players that turned out for the U-23 tournament will compete once again in July this year. Of course, the ultimate goal would be qualifying for the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup. However, to do so, Salva’s team needs to first qualify for the 2023 AFC U-20 Asian Cup and reach the semi-finals. Therefore, the 2023 AFC U-20 Asian Cup qualifying fixtures, that take place between 10–18 September 2022, are crucial.

Till then, the hustle never stops for the Spaniard.

Featured Image Credits: FA Thailand

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