From the footballing hotbed of Barcelona to steamy Bangkok, Salva Valero is aiming for the world stage as he attempts to lead Thailand to the 2021 FIFA U17 World Cup.
The latest step in that journey begins in Chonburi on July 28th as his current side compete in the AFF U15 Championship.
Their Group B campaign kicks off against Laos and they also face Brunei, Cambodia, Australia and Malaysia as they bid to reach the final stages.
Valero is well aware of the high expectations placed on the hosts but is at pains to stress that they are building towards bigger things that this particular regional competition.
“Of course, we know that in Thailand, everyone expects us to be the champions,” said Valero. “But we have to think more of the long-term process than the short-term. Our target is going to the U17 World Cup and to go to the AFC U16 Championship and be in the Top Four because the AFC U16 tournament is the bridge to the World Cup.
“That is our main focus and we have to prepare for that. If we only think about winning this tournament, we are incorrect. The point of this tournament is to prepare for the AFC qualifiers in September and of course the final round of the AFC next year.
“We are preparing the team and thinking more of the process than the final result. This process is training well, playing the way we want to play and that will make it easier to reach our targets.”
Valero is one of many modern coaches who travel from one side of the world to the other on their professional journey.
As part of the Ekkono group, he joined the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) two years ago as the Spanish coaching team was entrusted with the development of younger age groups.
However, he soon found out that there could be knee-jerk reactions rather than long-term strategy in his new working environment.
“Ekkono arrived in April 2017 in Thailand,” said Valero. “Initially, we were going to be responsible for the age groups from U21 and below. We worked for six months like that but after December, the U21 side lost against Myanmar and Vietnam in a tournament in Vietnam and that caused a dramatic reaction, so the FAT changed our duties to focus only on age groups below U16.
“At that moment, we started building up the generation 2004, which is the one that will play in the next AFF tournament – the one I’m in charge of. The target is to prepare a team that will go to the U17 World Cup.
“The first step is the AFC qualifiers in September and we are now preparing for the AFF tournament at the end of this month in Chonburi.”
Valero is just 26 years old but has amassed over a decade of experience in coaching, starting out in his home city of Barcelona at the age of 15.
“I coached in some of the best academies on Barcelona for eight years before coming to Thailand,’ he said. “I coached in the top U16 league with different teams, including Cornella and Gava, playing against Barcelona and Espanyol in the Catalonia top division for U16s.
“I started to be a coach when I was 15 because at that time I realized that as a football player, it would be difficult to reach the top level. I was playing but I wasn’t at the top level in my generation so I decided to focus on becoming a coach.”
Not surprisingly, Valero’s early years saw him influenced by the team that play at the Nou Camp stadium, but he also developed an admiration for coaches who plied their trade abroad and at home.
“I went to Barcelona’s stadium from the age of three with my father and I started to support Barcelona at that time,” said Valero.
“Apart from Barcelona’s influence, when I was a teenager, Mourinho started to manage Chelsea and then went to Inter. I liked his personality and especially the way he controlled his teams. He was a big influence for me in how he managed.
“For example, when Inter played against Barcelona in the 2010 AFC Champions League semi-final, he had Samuel Eto’o play at left-back and it worked. The way he made his team fight for each other and the way he created team spirit impressed me a lot. I liked Mourinho not so much from the tactical side but from the way he developed team spirit.
“Nowadays, Diego Simeone has the same idea of creating a strong group at Atletico Madrid. I like the kind of coaches who can create this environment in the team, where even the most talented players are fighting for the team and are sacrificing their own egos.
“In terms of football, my main influence is Barcelona, but in terms of managing and how to create team spirit, I like Mourinho and Simeone.”
It has long been observed that Thailand’s young players are blessed with plenty of skills but often fail to fulfil their potential as they develop into adult professionals. Valero believes that the problems lie not only off the pitch, but also in the lack of intensity in training and in games.
“In Thailand, on the technical side, we have good players,” he said. “If you compare us to the top academies in Barcelona where I coached, we could be better than some of the teams technically, but we lack organisation.
“Off the field, there is a lack of attention to lifestyle and professionalism. We are trying to educate our players about how to behave as football players, e.g. how to rest, how to eat. This is a big issue with Thai players, not only at youth level, but also at the professional level.
“To reach the standard of European countries is not about the technical side, but the lifestyle and the way you live football, the way you compete.
“When I watch the youth leagues and see the training at some academies, I think they lack intensity and competitiveness. In general, we lack that. We hope that with this generation we can change that but in Thailand it is a big issue.
“Coaching this generation from the age of 13, we have done the scouting and some training camps. Now they are 15, so we have worked them for two years, educating them on their behaviour on and off the pitch.”
Valero remains hopeful that the work done over the last two years can help this generation to adopt the right mentality as they seek to make a living from the game. He is hopeful that fans will turn out in numbers to back the team in Chonburi and thinks they could be rewarded with a style that might not be unfamiliar to followers of the English Premier League.
“Since we started with this generation, we realized that we have very talented midfielders. For sure, we will have a lot of possession,” said Valero.
“We have the identify of being a high pressing team. We will be focused on playing with the ball, trying to build up and switch to find an advantage, and also to do some counter pressing.
“We will be very intense when we lose the ball to react as fast as possible to recover the ball and continue attacking. That will be our aim – between Man City and Liverpool, we want play like that.”