Valencia on the lookout for talented Singaporean footballers
Nuno Espirito Santo knows talent when he sees it.
If Hariss Harun had signed for Rio Ave last year, Santo, then-coach of the Portuguese top-tier club, would have regularly fielded the Singaporean midfielder in his first 11.
Hariss turned down the offer because of personal reasons, but Santo, now coach of La Liga side Valencia, sees no reason why other Singaporean footballers cannot make the grade in Europe.
"I saw Hariss in action (when I was coach of Rio Ave) and was very impressed with him," Santo told The New Paper at Brewerkz at Riverside Point yesterday.
"I was on the phone with him, and everything was ready for him to sign. He had the chance, but he chose not to.
"I believe if a player from Singapore has enough quality, he can have the same opportunity - hopefully with Valencia, in the future."
Santo, along with Valencia team captain Dani Parejo and striker Rodrigo Moreno, were in Singapore the past two days to meet Singaporean businessman Peter Lim, who is close to buying over the club.
The 40-year-old Portuguese coach took over the La Liga club in July, after two years at Rio Ave, where he led the club to two domestic cup finals last season.
Santo's comments were in response to TNP's question at a media session on the chances of young Singaporean footballers earning a trial and maybe a playing contract at the Valencia academy.
Valencia's GloVal Academy is reputed for its training programmes which target children between the ages of 4 and 18.
It has an enrolment of 620 youngsters in 38 teams from more than 13 nationalities, including China, South Korea, Cameroon, England and Argentina.
Its Wanda project, a joint venture with Dalian Wanda group of China, has already trained 30 Chinese footballers from 13-15 years old.
"We aim to have a physical presence in some of the key Asian cities where we have a substantial fan base, and we are also on the lookout for Asian players with potential," said Santo.
"One of our big projects is to expand our scouting network in this part of the world, and that includes Singapore, of course."
Santo added that one of the aims of his Singapore trip is to recce some of the football facilities on offer here.
He said: "If possible, we want to come here next season to play a few matches, and also to promote the club more in Singapore."
Just three years ago, Valencia - the third most supported club in Spain behind heavyweights Real Madrid and Barcelona - were mired in financial woes and were forced to sell their stars to pay off debts.
But, with Lim on the verge of completing a takeover, they are hoping to repeat their success at the turn of the century, when they reached two successive Champions League finals in a row, in 2000 and 2001.
The new project is gaining momentum, and Valencia are starting to attract talent again.
Shkodran Mustafi, a member of Germany's World Cup-winning squad, rising midfield star Andre Gomes and Argentine Rodrigo de Paul are among a group of players who joined the club recently.
Spain striker Alvaro Negredo is the latest addition on transfer deadline day, joining on a season-loan from Manchester City.
Santo is confident that prospective new owner Lim will take Valencia back to where they belong - at the top.
"I've known Peter for a long time. He's a fantastic guy and we know we have a big responsibility because Peter wants the club to succeed," he said.
"He will give us time to bring the club up the right way.
"With Peter, I know we will be stronger not just for one or two years, but also for a long period."
"I believe if a player from Singapore has enough quality, he can have the same opportunity — hopefully with Valencia, in the future."
— Valencia coach Nuno Espirito Santo, who offered a contract to Hariss Harun when he was coach of Portuguese club Rio Ave
SANTO'S AIM: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUALIFICATION
As ambitious as he is, Valencia coach Nuno Espirito Santo admits that it will be tough to break the stranglehold Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid have on La Liga.
So the target for the six-time La Liga champions is securing a top-four finish and Champions League qualification.
"The (La Liga) title, for us, is not now," said Santo, who was in Singapore together with Valencia team captain Dani Parejo and striker Rodrigo Moreno the last two days to meet prospective new owner Peter Lim.
"We can achieve big things, but we should go step by step. Our goal is (to qualify for) the Champions League.
"Of course, we cannot lose ambition; we will fight every game, and we are strong enough, I believe, to win many matches."
With Atletico, Barca and Real almost guaranteed of finishing in the top three, Valencia face a stiff challenge for that coveted fourth spot.
"We have a big fight for fourth place with Villarreal, (Athletic) Bilbao, and Sevilla, who won the Europa League last season," said Santo.
"But there is no other way for us. With the history we have and what we are trying to achieve, we have to finish in the top four."
Founded in 1919, Valencia have amassed 20 major European and Spanish trophies, including six La Liga titles, seven Spanish Cups, three Uefa Cups, and one European Cup Winners' Cup.
They are also the only club to have reached the Champions League final twice in a row in 2000 and 2001, when they lost to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively.
Los Che's progress has stagnated in recent years due to financial problems, but they are dreaming of a revival with Singaporean businessman Lim set to officially take over the club in a few weeks' time.
And the early signs are promising.
Valencia are lying joint-second on four points behind Barcelona in the Spanish league, after drawing 1-1 away to Sevilla on the opening day before beating Malaga 3-0 at home last Friday.
And they strengthened their squad on transfer deadline day on Monday, when Spain striker Alvaro Negredo joined from Manchester City on a season-long loan deal.
Negredo (below) becomes the third striker on Valencia's books, alongside Portuguese starlet Rodrigo Moreno and Spanish international Paco Alcacer.
Delighted with the squad additions this season, team captain and midfielder Dani Parejo said that there is an air of optimism in the club.
"Every season, before we start, there is always a lot of hope for Valencia," said the 31-year-old.
"But, this year, the fans are even more hopeful. The players know we can win a trophy this season; we definitely want to do that for our fans."