For a player renowned for his elegant, unruffled defending, Port FC captain David Rochela looks unusually battered & bruised as he arrives for our interview, the livid red imprint of a football boot clearly visible on his forehead after he got in the way of a Dominic Adiyiah overhead kick during the previous evening’s friendly against Nakhon Ratchasima. After seeing him lying unconscious on the turf we were pretty sure today’s meeting would have to be postponed, but David not only shows up bang on time, he happily poses for photographs, having been reassured that fans love to see a player bearing battle scars for their team.
Not that his loyalty to Port has ever been in any doubt. This, after all, is a man about to enter his third season with the club, and who stuck around following 2015’s relegation to lead the club back to the top flight. Port fans love Rochela (as our 2016 Player of the Year vote clearly showed), and, as we will learn during the hour we spend chatting to him, that love is most definitely not unrequited.
Rochela was once one of the hottest youth properties in Spanish football, winning the 2007 European U17 championship alongside the likes of David de Gea and Bojan Krcic, and going on to play in La Liga for his local club Deportivo La Coruna. Following a spell with Israeli side Hapoel Tel Aviv, he joined Thai giants Buriram Utd in 2014, making 36 appearances as the Isaan side won the Thai Premier League. New signings in 2015 however meant his appearances were limited, and he joined Port, initially on loan, in the mid-season transfer window. Too late to prevent the club being relegated, but long enough to fall for the rough & ready Khlong Thoey club and make his mind up to stay on a permanent basis and help lead the Lions back to the top division at the first attempt.
As calm and relaxed off the pitch as he is on it, David spent an hour telling us about his formative experiences in Spain, crazy fans in Tel Aviv, the surprising Thai attitude to relegation, the team spirit at Port, his plans for the future, and much much more…
Tell us how you ended up playing in Thailand…
I was playing in Spain, then Israel with Hapoel Tel Aviv. Then I got the offer to go to Thailand to play with Buriram. I check everything, also I had some friends playing there, and at that moment it was the best team in Thailand and playing in the AFC CL. I needed a change in my life, so I said why not? So I came to Thailand, and I’m really happy here.
What was the hardest thing about adapting to Thailand?
The toughest thing for foreign players is the Thai weather. I think you need at least one month to start to breathe! When you run you say wow, I cannot play here. The grass, the ball, everything is different. Some players think oh, I go there just for a holiday, play some football, but no, you cannot think like that. It’s hard.
And what about the quality of the football? How does it compare?
In every country football is different. In Spain, teams try to keep their shape, always. You can lose the ball, but always stay in formation. But in Israel, after 70 minutes, teams always open up, so when you have one team that stays compact, you can win many games in the last 20 minutes. Maccabi Tel Aviv they brought one coach over from Spain, and they won everything – of course with good players, but also by keeping their shape on the field, so after 65-70 minutes the other teams all attack like crazy and forget to keep balance, destroy their own game.
In Thailand it is sometimes stressful as it can be difficult to control the game. In Spain it’s a little bit different, most teams try to keep the ball and stay compact, but if you see Thai games, it’s counterattack after counterattack, 5 players attacking 5 defenders or maybe 3, so for me as a defender it’s not really fine. I think in Thailand the fans want attack attack attack, they see one option which is to run and shoot, and in Spain it is different, fans are more patient and OK to see 15 passes.
With the players, there can be a lack of professionalism. At Buriram I played with guys who came from Thai boxing, they didn’t start playing football at 6 like I did, and they don’t understand that as a professional you have to control everything – sleep, food, rest. It’s not only the time you spend in training. It’s improving, Thai players are learning more, but I’ve seen players before important games eating things like popcorn or KFC. It’s normal for them. I know what I need to do to feel good to play but they are learning.
But for me Thai football is improving a lot, with a lot of young players – it’s not for now, but in 5, 6, 7 years, you can see things will improve.
With different nationalities on the pitch, how do you communicate? Thai players can be very quiet…
Communication is very important, you have to talk on the pitch and try to help each other. It’s funny, sometimes I shout in Spanish, sometimes Portuguese, sometimes English, so I mix a lot. When I first came, my defensive partner Narongrit, he couldn’t speak very good English, he taught me the Thai for left, right, forward, back, which was very important for defenders. If you’re a striker, not really, but as a central defender you have to listen to the goalkeeper, control the team, so you need to know some Thai to do that.
And how about Thai fans?
I like the fans in Thailand. After the game you go to the other team’s bench and the away crowd and thank them. If you did that in Spain, maybe they would throw things at you! For me that’s football. We go to enjoy the game, not to fight.
For me the most amazing was when we played Buriram in the last game of the season 2 years ago, we lost, we got relegated, and at the end of the game I had a sad face, and people were asking me for a photo. “Smile please, smile please!” I said “I cannot smile now”. They said “Don’t worry, next year we come back again!” I remember at La Coruna when we got relegated, it was a disaster. I tried to leave the stadium, and a bottle flew past my head, whoosh, and I had to run! I got out but the rest of the players were stuck inside the stadium for 2 hours. And in Israel, I played for Hapoel, we play in red. And our rivals, Maccabi, they play in yellow. One day in training one of my teammates was wearing shoes with laces- they weren’t even yellow, kind of yellow-green. And one of the fans saw them and he ran onto the pitch and started yelling “You can’t wear those! Take them off! Fuck Maccabi! Fuck yellow!” Crazy right?
So I like the mentality in Thailand – the fans go to enjoy, of course sometimes there are problems, but not often, not like in Europe.
You won the European U17 Championship with Spain in 2007, and were runners up in the U17 World Cup the same year. The following year, Spain won the Euros and began a 4-year domination of world football. How did that golden generation come about?
In Spain, all the kids want to be footballers. All the national team age groups play the same way so they all have the same idea. That’s why at U15, U17, U19, Spain have a lot of success. But at that age it is tough against African teams. In the U17 World Cup we played Ghana, and they all looked about 25! Then in the final against Nigeria, we lost on penalties, I remember I kicked their striker and I thought I’d broken my leg.
But sometimes, it’s just the moment. Spain always had really good players. In Korea in 2002 we lost because of the referee – if we had won that game, who knows? Maybe we win the tournament. So it’s just the moment. Sometimes you just have the right group of players, like Spain did, or like Leicester in England last season. We had our moment in 2008-2012, now we are trying to come back.
What’s your philosophy as a defender, and which other defenders would you say are your role models?
In England, people like to see tackling. But when I was young, I learned that when you go to ground, and you don’t take the ball, you’re out of the game. So I always try to stay up. I only go in if I’m sure I will get the ball. Going to ground is a risk.
Now I like Pique, he’s very smart and has good technique, but I don’t have one role model.
Let’s talk about Port FC. You joined us on loan from Buriram in 2015, yet despite relegation, you’re still here! Why have you stayed with the club?
I felt really good when I came to Port. I had a difficult time at Buriram, nothing but training for 6 months, no games, but at Port everything was amazing. Buriram have everything. If Newin wants it, they get it. They have great training facilities, 2-3 pitches – sometimes at Port we ruin our own pitch by training on it. But I like this club. When we got relegated I thought, I won’t find a better club than this, so I decided to stay and get back to TPL with Port.
I think we have the best atmosphere in Thailand. Some of the new players said to me last night (friendly v Nakhon Ratchasima) wow, if we have crowds like this for a friendly, what will we have during the season? Against Muangthong last season, we lost, but the atmosphere, wow. But the fans don’t care who we’re playing, whether it’s Muangthong or Nakhon Pathom, they come and they shout and they stay. For me it’s the best place. We have no running track, it’s a small stadium, not big empty areas like at Buriram.
We thought that 2016 would be an easy season for us and we would comfortably get promoted. It turned out to be a bit harder than that. Why did we struggle the way we did?
All the players in the second leg, we had some difficult moments. We started well but it wasn’t easy. Watching the games afterwards, I thought sometimes we played too individually, not as a team. We had a lot of players with good skills, and if they have success it’s fine, but when you lose the ball you have to run, work hard, get the ball back, and I think at times we lost that team spirit. If you have good skill, you have to wait for the right moment, not try to beat 5 players every time.
(Editor’s note: Dominick keeps saying the word “Cunha” at this point. David refuses to take the bait)
You’re famous at Port for your pre-match goalkeeper-hugging routine. Is that a Thai thing, a Spanish thing, or just a David Rochela thing?
With goalkeepers, I always have a good connection. We’re the last players in the team, I give everything for him and he gives everything for me, so it’s like, let’s go, let’s keep a clean sheet today. It’s a bonding thing.
Talking of goalkeepers, we have really good competition at Port with several good keepers. Who’s the best?
It’s a very difficult question. I can’t choose, it’s impossible. We have five goalkeepers, and any of them would get into most TPL teams. Last season we loaned keepers to TPL teams. We stay in D1 and we loan goalkeepers to TPL! We have five top goalkeepers.
Tell us which new players you’re excited about playing with this season…
Our midfielder, Tachanon, he is amazing. Yesterday he gave the ball away a couple of times but he’s always in the right position, he keeps the team balanced, he’s very strong – he’s only 20, but he’s confident and if he plays regularly he can make the national team.
Dolah can be a great defender. It’s hard to find Thai people with his physique. He’s very professional and focused and he listens a lot so he will improve. He can also make the national team.
I played against Sergio many times and he’s amazing, he’s very fit, and will be very important for the team. He can control games. Also many of our players have played with him before at Police which will help us.
I also played with Kalu (Andrija Kaludjerovic) at Racing Santander, and he is a great goalscorer. He does not look like a footballer but you give him the ball in the area, and he will score every time. Asdrubal, another very good player. He’s already match fit from Spain so I hope he can have a great season with us.
Who is the best player in the current squad in your opinion?
I think now, for our team, I cannot say he’s the best but the most important, it’s Sivakhorn. Last season whenever he missed a game, it was very difficult for us. He looks small, 40-50kg, but he gives us a lot. He runs a lot, always fighting, sometimes too much, too many yellow cards. But sometimes a midfielder needs to stop the game and take a yellow card for the team and he’s good at that. It’s normal, part of football. Sometimes I tell him to relax, but he’s very passionate and a very important player for the team. He’s also the biggest joker in the team! We have a very good team spirit – sometimes it’s too much, during training people tell me to smile and I say no, I’m training. After training we can do what we want. But the team spirit is very good.
Who’s the best player you’ve played against in Thailand?
Messi J. He’s different. Very smart, can shoot with both feet, fast and reads the game well. That’s why he’s gone to Japan. I can’t wait to see how good he can be there. Playing abroad is not easy – for Teerasil at Almeria in Spain it was difficult. Maybe it’s easier to go to Japan. I hope he can do well and I hope all the world will see that Thai players can play overseas.
What about the future? Do you still have ambition to go back and play in Europe?
No, I’m happy in Thailand and I hope I can stay at Port for more years. I’m happy, I think the club is happy with me, so I hope I can stay. I don’t have family or kids so it’s easy for me to stay. If you have family or kids you have to think more carefully about where you play, and you can’t move around.
When I finish playing, maybe I will forget football. I started studying physiotherapy in Spain so maybe I’ll go back there and open a clinic.
And finally, what are your thoughts on Port’s chances in the 2017 T1?
I hope we can enjoy the new season, no relegation fight. I think the owners’ plan is to keep the core of the team together and only bring in players if they will improve the team. I don’t want to say we will finish top 3, top 5, but I think we can finish top half and do well in the cups.
Big thanks to David for giving up 2 hours on his day off to answer our questions! Interview by Tim Russell and Dominick Cartwright. Photos by Tim Russell. Thanks to Joe & Max at The Sportsman Bangkok for hosting us.