Pep x 2
Chiang Mai FC have appointed Albert Garcia Xicota as the club’s new Head Coach and Chiang Mai fans have already compared his look to that of Pep Guardiola.
Since it may be some time before we can talk with him this is some background and context for his coaching career which includes five remarkable years (2017 to 2022) in China with Wuhan Three Towns FC.
A little background on Wuhan Three Towns is necessary as his time there has been pivotal to his career.
Established as Wuhan Shangwen (Simplified Chinese: 武汉尚文) in 2013 by the Wuhan Football Association and private investment from the Wuhan Benhui Group, the initial aim was to focus on the development of youth players.
In 2018, the club started to participate in the Wuhan Super League, and finished second behind Wuhan Chufeng Heli. They also participated in the 2018 Chinese Champions League, and made it to the final round of 16 before being eliminated by Nanjing Shaye.
Ranking 11th in the 2018 Chinese Champions League, the club was then admitted into 2019 China League Two to fill the gap left by a withdrawn team. The club name was changed to Wuhan Three Towns F.C. in January 2019.
Albert Garcia Xicota Garcia was a player and coach with Spanish club EC Granollers and then coach at CE Manresa in the fourth tier of Spanish football before his move to China.
He arrived in Wuhan in 2017 to coach and build the youth team infrastructure. He was appointed head coach of the club for the 2019 China League Two season and the team finished eleventh at the end of the season.
In 2020 Garcia led Wuhan to the second division title and promotion into the second tier (League One). China’s top tier is the Super League with League One etc. below that.
In July 2021, Pedro Morilla was appointed as caretaker manager of the club; he had previously worked as technical director. In December 2021, he was promoted to manager after winning 14 matches in a row.
Wuhan Three Towns went on to win the 2021 China League One title and was promoted to the CSL – Chinese Super League.
On 31 December 2022, Wuhan Three Towns won the 2022 Chinese Super League for the first time after several fixtures were again cancelled due to COVID-19 outbreak. They were awarded a 3–0 win against Tianjin Jinmen Tiger, who had forfeited due to sick players, and had a better goal difference than Shandong Taishan to top the table.
On 17 June 2023, Morilla was himself removed as head coach after only 3 wins from the first 12 league games of the season. Japanese coach Tsutomu Takahata was appointed as his successor on the following day.
With financial issues blighting so many clubs on 28 August 2023, the club’s investors announced their intention to withdraw funding from the team, as well as selling it for free.
Garcia’s five years in China have to be seen against the background of Covid – with the harshest and longest restrictions of anywhere in the world.
Back in 2019 Wuhan Three Towns FC drew crowds of between 2,000 and 4,000 and were preparing for a new season in League Two when their world was turned upside down.
It was a club at the epicentre of Covid. In late January 2020 Chinese authorities placed Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei on a strict lockdown, with nobody allowed in or out of the area and an estimated 56 million people ordered to stay indoors.
The start of the Chinese football season was indefinitely postponed. The country’s Zero-Covid policy meant that, for three years, most games would take place in empty stadiums and at bio-secure, centralised venues.
Players and staff were stuck in hotels for months. Some foreign players could not get back into China from overseas and ended up being released from their contracts.
Others of course could not leave China.
With no fans, games delayed for weeks and months and big players leaving, it is no wonder many lost interest. The Chinese Football Association then paused what schedule there was for months so the national team could prepare for World Cup qualifiers (which had to be played overseas because opponents could not enter China), turning more people off. China fell well short of qualifying for Qatar 2022.
As in Thailand, but on a much larger scale, financial issues were mounting. With no fans buying tickets, sponsorship revenue falling and broadcasters losing interest because of the erratic scheduling, many clubs were soon struggling.
In February 2021 the defending champions, Jiangsu FC, owned by the retail giant Suning, folded. The financial struggles of property developers, hit by an overheated market, posed a bigger problem. Real estate companies owned, at least in part, more than half the top-tier clubs and, over time, more and more clubs could not pay salaries or utility bills.
There were plenty of examples, such as Hebei FC, owned by China Fortune Land Development. “Since 2020, Hebei FC has run into unprecedented difficulties,” the club, who had not long said goodbye to Manuel Pellegrini, Mascherano and Lavezzi, said in 2021. “It is true that the club cannot pay water and electricity bills and travel expenses.”
Tianjin Quanjian – formerly home to internationals Alexandre Pato, Anthony Modeste and Axel Witsel – was another to close its doors.
Garcia was a witness to all of this. There are stories to be told there. It was a remarkable, and presumably at times deeply worrying, time to be in China.
In July 2021 Wuhan Three Towns officially announced that Garcia had been dismissed as Head Coach and technical director Pedro Morilla has been appointed as the acting coach.
Sohu.com published the official announcement noting that “during his leadership of the team, Mr. Albert was conscientious and responsible, worked diligently, and faced difficulties. He devoted his efforts to the development of the team and achieved good results. Especially during the COVID-19 epidemic, he returned to China as soon as possible to join the team and stick to his post, which fully demonstrated the good qualities of a professional footballer. The club sincerely thanks Mr. Albert for his efforts and contributions to the continuous advancement of Wuhan Three Towns football. I wish him all the best in his future work and life.
The club has now decided that technical director Pedro Morilla will serve as the acting head coach of the first team until the new head coach arrives.”
Garcia remained as Technical Director until August 2022 when China slowly re-opened the borders.
Pedro Morilla was himself fired earlier this year.
Leaving China, Garcia moved to Portugal with GD Fontinhas on a short term contract, from 20 February 2023 to 30 June 2023.
Under Garcia the club lost just two of nine matches played but with the restructuring of the Portugese Leagues and eight teams to be relegated it was not enough to save the club from moving down to the Portugese fourth tier.
GD Fortinas is based in Municipal da Praia da Vitória on the island of Terceira in the Azores, approximately half way between Europe and North America. With a population of just over 21,000 this must have felt like a different world from Wuhan.
As an avgeek aside the island’s airfield was in 2001 the arrival point of the longest passenger aircraft glide without engines, when Air Transat 236 ran out fuel and glided for nearly 75 miles or 121 kilometres to a safe landing. Nicknamed the Azores Glider the airliner (an Airbus A330) was another Covid casualty being placed into storage in March 2020.
Back to our new coach: Garcia starts his Chiang Mai career with an away trip to Nakhon Ratchasima (22nd October) – relegated from T1 last season and currently in second place in T2; a point behind CMFC.
While the circumstances that brought him here are unfortunate we wish our new head coach every success in his new role.