China’s 2003-age U20 national youth team has completed its mission for this year’s U20 Asian Cup, and despite the agony of being one step away from qualifying the World Youth Cup in Indonesia, the performance of the players is there for all to see. The team’s supporters were at least given a glimmer of hope again. The head coach Antonio Puche has returned to Spain directly from Tashkent due to family matters and did not follow the national youth team back to Beijing. As his current contract expires, Puche was interviewed for one last time, summarizing the situation of the U20 National Team’s participation in the tournament and giving his opinion on the next phase of development of Chinese Football.
①Most satisfactory: the national youth team has set an example
Q: The Chinese team has finished their last game in this year’s U20 Asian Cup. Although it failed to realize its ultimate dream, the overall performance has convinced many people. As the head coach, what is your biggest feeling?
Antonio Puche: All the people, including the players and the members of my staff, have worked hard and I am satisfied with the overall work and the final result. Together with the training camp in the UAE preceding the tournament, there were about two months in total in which our coaches and supporting staff worked about 16 hours a day, with very little time for sleeping.
The biggest lesson I learned is that if we find the right direction and work together, we will get good results. In this tournament, facing Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan are not a battle on paper, but a real battle fought between one team aginst another team, and one player against another player. They are all top teams in Asia, not just at the U20 age level. These teams have all age groups teams among the top in Asia. But we showed in the process the daring to fight against them on the field and to get closer and we tried get closer to their level in the game. So I am very satisfied.
So far, the contract between me and CFA is over. Now I am leaving with a feeling of pride, honour, and huge calmness. Because I am worthy of this contract and the team has set an example for other teams.
Q: There was a question that everyone was discussing after the game. Because the overall situation of Chinese football is not good at the moment. But people feel through this U20 Asian Cup they have found the right way to go against the strong teams in Asia and get the desired result. How do you feel about that statement?
Puche: Our direction and thinking has always been clear, and it’s something that we’ve been sticking to during the last few months of training, including in the friendly games. The first is off-court discipline, including physical reserves, nutritional intake in the diet, the daily training as the last practice to treat this attitude; the second is our organizational ability. In addition, without strong willpower, we would not have the results today.
In the past, we have been asking why we can’t win against Japan and Korea. Actually it is possible, we have actually shown something in this tournament. Of course, there is still a lot of work needed behind the scenes to really win the tournament, but the direction is clear, and we can do it if we go in this direction.
Q: During this tournament, there was also controversy about the personnel, that there were some more famous players who were not selected, and some players who played overseas were not called up. Are we to understand that the players you selected were not necessarily the best, but the ones who could best understand the implementation of your tactical intentions?
Puche: My primary criterion is to have team players, players who can work together with others, not people who play for themselves and play in whatever position they want to play in. Inside my team, players have no choice, it’s about enforcing discipline and showing that it’s a team in front of everyone, not individuals. This is what we have reflected in this U20 Asian Cup and what we have been asking for all this time, we are preparing with this ideology, if you want to help the team, you can, we welcome it; if you don’t want to give to the team, then we don’t welcome it, no matter which team he plays in or who he is, whether he has fame or not. The point here is that as long as he can defend the honor of the country, the honor of the team, he can come to this team and we welcome it.
Q: There are more players from Xinjiang in the team’s 23-man roster this time, and they all performed well in the game. What do you value most about them?
Puche: These kids are very good, I feel very happy to work with them, train and play with them, they are very humble and have this willingness to give whatever they have and want to help the team. I don’t just look at their individual abilities and I don’t care if they are born in 2003 or 2005. In the final period against Korea, six of the 11 players on the field were from 2004 and one was from 2005. I don’t look at ID, just performance. If they perform well in the game and are working hard for the team, then they come; if not, then they are determined not to.
②Most regrettable: playing too few international matches
Q: The technical and tactical style of play shown by the national youth team is very characteristic, the first emphasizes fast transition, and the second emphasizes physicality. But the pace of the Chinese league is slow and the physicality is not enough, should the domestic team also develop in the same direction as the national youth team?
Puche: Here is my personal understanding of football: first of all, it should be aggressive, secondly, it should be organized, and thirdly, it should be fast. I have coached in Asia for a long time in the past and have a deeper understanding of Asian football, and on this basis, I think it should be like this. Of course, this is my personal opinion.
Q: In 2018 you were the coach of the 2003 age group team and took the team to the 2019 Shaanxi Weinan Cup; in 2019 you were also the coach of the 2004 age group team and took the team to the U16 Asian Junior Championship qualifier, after which you returned to the 2003 age group team. Five years on, the players now have changed a lot from the beginning, compared to 2018 when very few players stayed What are the reasons for this?
Puche: First of all, I watched a lot of games and did a lot more tests during the process. After understanding the basic situation, our focus was to improve the players’ abilities before making choices based on actual needs. Frankly speaking, most of the players were in very poor physical and fitness conditions when they first arrived on the team, so what we set out to do at that time was to fundamentally change this aspect, including endurance, speed, etc. Relatively speaking, the players have improved the most in this area.
Secondly, when the players first arrived, they did not understand the tactics and had deficiencies in tactics. We explained and trained from this perspective so that the tactical awareness of the players also improved a lot. So as you can see now, we are now a compact whole.
The so-called selection is not that complicated, it is based on the tactical needs, and then strengthens the characteristics of the selected players. In fact, Chinese players are capable and have the possibility to play well, but usually, they have to be strict with them, they have to be tightened up often, and definitely, they cannot be allowed to do whatever they want to do. They have to serve the team.
Then save all the things I have mentioned together and reinforce them. It’s really tough for us in the past two months, not only for friendly games, but the players actually have very strict dietary intake rules, what they can eat and what they absolutely can’t eat; what time they have to sleep and how long they have to sleep; the time they have to practice three times a day, the time they have to go to the gym and so on, all of these have strict rules. In this way, we have actually changed the physical condition of these players 100%, and proved that the physical condition of Chinese players can be fundamentally changed to meet the requirements of modern football.
Q: During the whole process of building the team, is it true that there are still fewer games played?
Puche: It’s really hard to play under the epidemic, but of course it’s understandable. The lack of games has hurt the team and there are disadvantages, we could have played more international games, both at the national youth team level and in the grassroots youth leagues. Many national teams around the world go to Spain for training, including youth national teams at all levels, U21, U19, U18, U17 and even U15 teams, like South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia who are participating in this U20 Asian Cup, they also often go to Spain for training. As a player must play games, invitational tournaments or cups. Good players in Europe and South America, they are playing a lot of high-level international games. As a head coach, this is very clear to me, but as said before because of objective reasons we can not achieve this. But the good thing is that our final performance is not bad, if we can have more international matches, I believe that the players will improve faster and better.
③Step in the right direction every step of the way
Q: The task of the 2003-born national youth team to participate in the U20 Asian Cup is finished, but from a long-term perspective, they still have the U23 Asian Cup in the future and the Asian Games in Japan in 2026. How do you think about these events in the future?
Puche: At the moment, my contract with the CFA is over and I don’t know yet if I will continue to work with them in the future. The only thing I can say now is that it would be a great pity if the boys of this team are forgotten. They need to continue to train and work hard and if they can do that, the team has hope and a future.
Q: What is your advice for the future of the team?
Puche: My advice is still to play more international matches, and not just at the national level either, the invitational tournaments and cups that I just mentioned, Asian, European, and South American tournaments, all forms of competition are needed. International matches allow players to accumulate experience and also allow them to improve their personal level. Before this U20 Asian Cup, we played five warm-up games in West Asia and four international games in Croatia, all of which were very exciting and outstanding. Each game was pushing our limits for us, with opponents who were much better than us, and even those who sent their strongest lineups, so we could improve. These international games are faster paced, more intense, and the players make different moves in the game, which is completely different from what we see in Chinese domestic football. Through these games, you can feel that the players are improving. It is with these warm-up games that we can perform at the level of the official games.
Q: Last question, four teams, South Korea, Japan, Uzbekistan, and Iraq, ended up in the quarterfinals of the U20 Asian Cup, do they represent the best level of this age group in Asia at the moment?
Puche: Japan and South Korea have already won against Germany, Spain, and Portugal in the World Cup in Qatar. From the national team to the youth team they are years have been developing for years and are way ahead of China. The ability of the players, they are basically already on the same level as European players. China’s goal, first of all, should be placed at the Asian level: to be competitive on the continent first, and then slowly get closer to the best teams in Asia, and then get close to the best in the World. For example, in this tournament, we are approaching the best teams in Asia, so we will continue to move forward step by step, but we must take each step well.