On 20th March, Soccer magazine released another interview with Antonio Puche, even after the ‘final’ interview.
Jia Yanfeng: They have received so much recognition and praise even though they did not reach the U20 World Cup. In your opinion, what makes the national youth team able to capture the hearts of a large number of fans?
Antonio Puche: I thank the fans for their recognition and encouragement. And I thank my players for really having done their best for the honor of their country. I am the head coach and I see the spirit of defiance and national honour in addition to the spirit of hard work. After taking over this team, I have been paying a lot of attention to both team spirit and patriotism. Team spirit is not only reflected on the training field, while patriotism cannot only be reflected in words. But there must be actual actions and real fighting.
Never blame the fans, but to reflect on oneself. If the fans do not recognize our efforts, then we did not give them satisfaction. In my experience, in fact, at this time the Chinese fans, in addition to good results, also want to see a good attitude, tenacity and fighting spirit. It’s already disappointing not to get the result they want. But if they don’t see hope, it will create continuous blame on the players over time.
Jia: You were the head coach of the U16 national youth team and now you are in charge of the U20 national youth team. Why were you able to take over two youth national teams in a row?
Puche: Before I took over the national youth team, I was the head coach of the 04 national youth team and was scheduled to take the team to the Asian Junior Championship in Bahrain in 2020. We reached the final round there despite being generally not favoured. The Chinese Football Association was satisfied with what I had done and therefore gave me a new contract. It was originally meant to finish the tournament but the tournament was cancelled by COVID and the team was therefore disbanded. After that they gave me a new contract asking me to take over the 03-born national youth team to prepare for the World Youth Championship.
Jia: You led a team in Kuwait, did that experience help you in coaching in China?
Puche: Very much so, at least it gave me a good idea of the general level of Asian football and the culture and thinking here. While coaching in Kuwait, I have led teams to play some AFC-wide intercontinental tournaments, including the AFC Cup. And I have also traveled to Southeast Asian countries to participate in some tournaments. In the process, I have learned enough about both East and West Asian football to be confident about taking this job with the CFA. So I was full of confidence about this upcoming job with the CFA.
Jia: You were coaching adult professional teams before, why did you come all the way to China to lead a national youth team?
Puche: European countries have seen the rise of China and are shocked. For us to be able to coach in China and see with our own eyes what this great country has to offer is not only a job, but also an honour and a challenge. I hope to challenge the past. As a young man, I was a starter for the Spanish U16 national team and I believe I have enough ability and experience to help Chinese football.
Patriotism and Professionalism
Jia: As a Spanish coach, you put special emphasis on team and patriotic spirit. It is understandable to value team spirit. But I heard from the players that you often say that you have to fight for the five-starred red flag to the best of your ability. And you have to play with a determination that you will die on the field even if you do. And that you cannot hold anything back in order to defend the honor of the five-starred red flag. These words would seem normal to me if they came from the mouth of a Chinese coach, but …… as far as I know, promoting professionalism seems to be a bit more common. Or, even if the patriotic spirit is emphasized, it doesn’t seem to be in this way ……
Puche: When I was a player, I was 16 years old and 148 days to play La Liga. It was the record youngest debut appearance of La Liga. Later, I was selected for the Spanish U16 national youth team and U20. When playing on behalf of the national team, hearing sound of the national anthem at the moment, what comes to mind is exactly those words I said: even if I will die, I will be fighting for the honour of the country. The honour of wearing the national team uniform is not something that can be obtained by money, social status, or fame, but only by true strength. So it is an extremely precious honor, and there is only a very short time in a lifetime when you can have such an honor.
My father said that the national team’s uniform will not belong to a person forever, unless there is a situation that is to die fighting for the country. Then, it will forever set itself there, this honor, it will belong with you forever. In fact, it is not necessary to die, but to carry a determination not to be afraid of sacrifice to defend the honor. So that it is worthy of the national team’s uniform, worthy of the glory and trust given to us by the country.
Jia: Do you think the players born after 2000 can understand this? Or can they really take it to heart? How can you guarantee that they will follow the requirements?
Puche: Words alone are not enough. They must be implemented in every detail of training and life. I have a good team of coaches who give me maximum cooperation. I have been working with (team manager Shao) Jiayi for 4 years and he is even better than me in “squeezing” the players’ mental strength. And my Chinese coaching staff, they play an extremely important role in the team’s performance.
Jia: In what way do you “squeeze” the players?
Puche: In terms of the big picture, such as punctuality of the assembly, uniformity of hair and dress, standardization of diet, decency of speech and behaviour; on a smaller level, when acting alone, the needs of the same room and teammates must be fully considered, and mutual respect and understanding; then there is the fairness of the physical fitness and tactical training standards, for a team, the scale must be uniform, no special. Only based on these specific requirements, they can truly become a team when they arrive on the field. The team is not just words, but a unified combination from spirit to form, and if the players do not fully recognize each other inside, it is difficult to reach a tacit understanding. These requirements are actually not only for the players, but also for the coaching staff.
Jia: Before you, there were several big-name coaches from Spain to coach in China, such as Camacho and Benitez, but none of them left too with too good a record. It can even be said that there are doubts about whether Spanish coaches are really suitable for Chinese football, what is your opinion and is it stressful?
Puche: At present, there are about 800 coaches in Spain, including head coaches, assistant coaches, goalkeeper coaches, physical trainers, etc., coaching at different levels and different types of teams in the world, and I am just one of them. But no matter where you coach, there is always pressure on the football coach. Personally, I don’t want to copy everything from Spanish football to Chinese football. I hope to use the relatively advanced and developed concepts and experience of Spain, combined with the foundation and characteristics of Chinese players themselves, to help Chinese football grow and improve itself, instead of becoming someone else. In fact, not only Spain, but also coaches from other developed football countries, as long as the philosophy is to help Chinese football to become a better version of itself, it is not suitable or unsuitable.
Jia: In your opinion, what are the characteristics of Chinese players? What are the gaps compared to European players? How can you bridge the gap?
Puche: China has a lot of talented players who love to play football and have given a lot to become professional players. In our team, the players are doing very well in terms of tactical execution, overall pressing and speed of attack and defense transition, no worse than our opponents.
The weakness of Chinese players is the inability to quickly understand the complex and changing situation on the field and then make the right choice. This understanding, not individually but collectively. With and only a collective understanding a team can pose a threat to the opponents. For example, when the opponent sets up a formation to attack, how do the players, without having rehearsed the situation, can respond collectively and cooperatively according to the general principles in the usual training on the spot. These responses may be a series of complex choices regarding offense-defense transition at varying difficulties and frequencies. Chinese players do a good job of executing some established tactics and prescribed moves, but can be slightly less effective in the face of uncertainty. Compared with European players, Chinese players’ overall level of understanding of the changing situation on the field is not as high, which may be related to the accumulation of Chinese football culture is not as deep. But it’s not that Chinese footballers can’t play well. As long as the training is more rigorous and correct, progress can still be made. And because of that, the tactical discipline and execution of Chinese teams must be better.
Jia: Assistant coach Du Zhenyu said in an interview that the tactics you developed for the U20 national youth were basically determined from the time you took over the team. According to the characteristics of the main opponents, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The traditional Spanish passing and controlling tactics were abandoned and a steady defensive counter-attacking style of play was adopted, just like in the U20 Asian Youth Tournament, why did you develop this style of play?
Puche: In fact, the tactical play of football can never be separated from two basic scopes: First, who are you and what are your abilities; second, who are your opponents and how do you play? There are national teams that are completely centered on self-play, but they are very few and not something that Chinese football is currently capable of achieving. Chinese football has a weak foundation. At the moment, so we think more about the possibility of winning, and as long as there is a glimmer of hope, we have to do our best. As I said, Chinese players are not that good at adapting, but they have very good tactical execution and are physically capable of fighting within Asia. Therefore, our tactical thinking is to play overall, fast football, and, our counter-attacking tactics, is not as simple as it seems to the outside world, but it is not convenient to disclose the details, in general, this is currently I think more suitable for this national youth at this stage of strength and characteristics of a way of playing.
Jia: Our near neighbors, Japan, for many years, has always emphasized ball control, why they can do it, but we can not do it. This is the part that are harder for Chinese fans to get over with……
Puche: Before coming to China to coach, I often saw Japan’s youth teams at all levels go to Spain to train and play. This time the Japanese U20 national youth team, they went to Europe to play three warm-up games before leaving for this U20 Asian Cup. They won 3-2 against Slovakia, 1-0 against Spain, and lost 1-2 against France. From what I understand, Japan has been able to match most European teams in terms of their strength and technical and tactical proficiency from their youth team up. Although you feel surprised to see Japan’s performance in the World Cup. If you know how their youth team performed in Europe, this surprise, should be smaller. In fact, the Japanese team has moved from Asia into Europe.
What you are more concerned about is the Japanese team’s passing and controlling style of play, which actually does not exist separately from reality. No team will give up the pursuit of victory in order to pursue ball control or a good-looking field. It was because Japan figured this out that they made a major tactical change in the Qatar World Cup. In terms of possession, there was a gap between Japan and Spain, but not as big as that game presented. Japan simply chose a more suitable tactic to do more assured defense and efficient counterattacks. Japan’s premise of not falling behind against European powerhouses is built on their improved counter-attacking efficiency, accuracy and speed, which itself has a lot to do with their superb passing ability. However, Japan has Japanese characteristics, and China should also find Chinese characteristics.
Jia: Did we borrow from Japan in our tactics this time?
Puche: When I made the tactics for the national youth team, it was still far from the start of the World Cup in Qatar, and I couldn’t predict the changes of the Japanese team in advance. So I can’t say it was borrowed. But the Japanese team’s adjustments did corroborate my judgment to a certain extent as well as increase the confidence of the players and make each player more determined to execute. In fact, there is no good or bad tactics, only suitable and unsuitable. And the excitement of the game is not measured by the number of passes and shots, I think that tenacious and strict defense is also a kind of beauty of football, just like the goal we scored against Saudi Arabia. I think the cooperation is also beautiful. The beauty of football is not unique, nor can it be limited to one model. I admit that Spain’s Tiki-Taka is beautiful, but it is not the only beauty.
Jia: Before playing South Korea, you reportedly gave an impassioned speech, and if you look at just the 90 minutes, we did manage to not fall significantly behind ……
Puche: Yup. I told the players that many people felt that we should have gone home long ago, but we persevered until we got out of the group and met Korea; too many people said that we must not be able to beat Korea, well, let’s not think about the result, I carefully analyzed the video of both sides and said to you responsibly that Korea has no obvious advantage in terms of physical ability, tactics, and speed of attack and defense transition, so don’t be too intimidated and just play normally. What Korea may have more than us is the tournament experience, but they can’t beat us easily.
Jia: After the first game, some fans said, “Although the score between Japan and the national youth team was just a goal difference, but from the content of that game, it may not catch up with Japan in another 50 years” ……
Puche: The Chinese nation is an amazing nation that has created many wonders of modern civilization. I can understand the mentality of Chinese fans who want to be a leader in the football world as well, but football is not that simple and easy to do. I firmly believe that Chinese football will get better and better. But before it can really take off, it must get some of the most basic things right, and don’t rush to compare with anyone first, it’s not fair to Chinese football. My suggestion is not to rush to compare the results with Japan and South Korea, but to compare the structure and integrity of the whole development system with them, as well as the corresponding football facilities, the way of exporting professional talents and the quality. If they are closer at these levels, I believe that the gap between the two sides’ strength will not be as big as it is now.
Jia: Many overseas players were not selected for this Asian Youth Tournament, why?
Puche: When selecting the players, I didn’t deliberately consider who was a foreigner and who was a domestic player, but the whole coaching team had the same view, that is, to select the players who best meet the overall tactical needs and have more team spirit. Football is a team sport, individual ability is important, but football is not the result of adding 11 individual players. Rather, the whole squad must be carefully selected, and players need to make up for each other and promote each other. If you choose only according to individual ability, then the combination may not be the best. Therefore, there is no intentional selection or non-selection.
Jia: One Chinese coach (Jia Xiuquan, lol) has said that he needs a player who can be integrated into the whole team, not a star who is independent of the system. But in the end, it was simply and crudely interpreted as he did not need a star, and so far it is not accepted by Chinese fans that how can Chinese football win without a star. So how do you see the relationship between stars and teams, and what is your attitude towards stars?
Puche: The national team can have stars, no one will reject a player with strength. But it depends on what the star means to the national team. If he can integrate his outstanding ability into the overall tactical needs and contribute to the improvement of the overall performance, then such a star is needed. But if a star can only realize his self-worth, can’t give help and encouragement to his teammates, or even is independent of the system, such a star, indeed, means little to the national team. I once told the players that none of you should think that you are any star. The biggest star in this team is the five-star red flag on your chest. This is what you should stick to and follow. No one can override the collective honor and interest. How can the self-centered stars, who do not put the collective interest first, put the honor and interest of the country on them.
Jia: The team leader Shao Jiayi was an iconic player in his playing days, can you talk about the details of your cooperation?
Jia Yi and I seem to be friends who have known each other for many years. We have this feeling since we started working together. He is very smart. He has a deep understanding of the advanced European football philosophy. And he knows enough about Chinese football. He is a good partner. We communicate with each other as equals, but he respects me, and I respect him very much. During special times, when I couldn’t come back to China for some reason, he would put my training plan in place completely, and he would have video conference calls with me every night on time to communicate, so the quality of our training was fully guaranteed. He is humble and a good role model for the players. I thank him for his support over the years and he is a big factor in my confidence in the future of Chinese football. I know that with the presence of a force like him, Chinese football will not always be at the same level as it is now, and with their efforts, it will definitely get better and better.
Jia: There are a number of players who performed well in this Asian Youth Tournament. Can you comment on them?
Puche: Sorry, I never comment on any one player individually because this is a team sport and all players are not good or bad independently.
Jia: So can you tell me who are the players in this group that can stay abroad? Which leagues can they choose?
Puche: It is definitely good to go to a higher level league in Europe, but if you don’t have the certainty to compete as a starter or as a substitute, just going to observe is not necessarily better than staying at home and playing in the Chinese Super League. This group of players, I can’t say who can go to Europe to play now, but I can be sure that some of them will become the main force of the national football team in the future.
If they want to go to Europe, first they have to find a stable foothold at home, become the absolute starter in the CSL, guarantee a stable appearance rate and excellent performance, and then go to Europe, at least the game experience and self-confidence, will not be that much worse. It is important to know that looking good and having strength is not the same as being able to play in Europe for sure. In addition to individual ability, there are also language, culture, thought, socialization, values, food and many other aspects to integrate. The reason why Japan has so many foreign players in Germany is that there is a big relationship between the way of thinking and the logic of behavior of the two nations. So, I am not against players staying abroad, but they must be cautious and not blind.
Jia: Your contract with the CFA has expired, what are your plans for the future?
Puche: I want to take a break for a while and spend some time with my family. For football coaches, for me, who love Chinese culture, the door is open to Chinese football at all times.