Had he not been a footballer, Chico Flores would, he says, have become an architect or a commercial pilot. In fact, the Spanish centre-half had studied architecture, design and even began a private pilot license before a move to England saw those pastimes and ambitions temporarily shelved.
Nonetheless, the way in which he has constructed his career has been equally adrenaline-rich for the tall Andalusian, who cites the great Franz Beckenbauer as a role model. Flores has now experienced life in the top flights of Spain, Italy, England and Qatar, helping Swansea lift the first major trophy of their 100-year history before winning the title in his first season with Lekhwiya. The former Almeria and Genoa player made the move to the Qatar Stars League just over a year ago at the age of 27, and explained his thinking in making this move as he approached his peak.
"I knew that with the World Cup coming up in Qatar, they wanted to undertake new projects and raise even further the level of professionalism," Flores told www.sc.qa in an extensive interview, in which he also named former Swansea and Lekhwiya coach Michael Laudrup as a decisive factor in his move to Qatari football. "So I came here and I am very happy. I have already seen the level increase and the league and players become more professional, and those things will continue to improve every year until the World Cup. Ever since my arrival I have been received exceptionally well by everyone here."
Lekhwiya were impressive champions too, losing just two of their 26 matches en route to clinching the club’s fourth national championship. And while their rivals have strengthened considerably with some big-name additions, Flores is adamant that the title, which they won along with the Crown Prince Cup, will not be surrendered without a scrap. "We will fight from the first game to the last,” he said. “It will be difficult to defend our titles but we will give it our best."
I think it can be the best World Cup of all time. Because of the football, the stadiums, the technology, I think Qatar is going to be one of the best countries in the world.
Aside from defending the QSL title, Flores is intent on going all the way in Asia’s top club competition, with Lekhwiya currently preparing for a quarter-final meeting with Saudi side Al Hilal: "The Asian Champions League is very difficult,” he said. “You play against the best teams from a lot of different countries. In the league you have more regular matches, but here one bad match or a sending off can be crucial. We want to reach the final, although we know it will be difficult."
As a youngster, Flores learned his trade with hometown team Cadiz before moving to Barcelona, where he played for the second team trained alongside many of the club’s all-time greats. Among them was midfield maestro Xavi, who will this year come up against him in the QSL, having left the Catalans to join Al Sadd. With the 2015/16 season set to begin on 11 September, it is one of many duels he is looking forward to. He said: "Even if we don't face each other in the field directly - because I play in defence and he is a midfielder - I will do my best to hold a high line and help my midfielders steal the ball from him."
Flores’ defensive skills made him a favourite with Swansea fans during his time with the English Premier League club and, prompted for a career highlight, he cited a goal from his stint in Wales. "When we played at Anfield in the cup,” he recalled, referring to a 3-1 League Cup win at Liverpool in 2012. “I scored the first goal in the best stadium in England, in front of the best fans."
Flores – full name Jose Manuel Flores - also explained his nickname, which now adorns his shirt. "When I was a kid people called me Chico because I always played with older kids,” said the big defender, who has images of family members on his shin guards. “When my grandfather, who always called me Chico, died, I put it on my jersey."
The Lekhwiya star was speaking as he visited the offices of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), learning about the stadiums under construction and the progress being made towards Qatar 2022. "I have been very impressed,” he said. “To see how well organised the work is in preparing the tournament, I think it can be the best World Cup of all time. Because of the football, the stadiums, the technology, I think Qatar is going to be one of the best countries in the world in the future. Before I thought differently, but now that I have been here a while I have changed my opinion. I wish Qatar the best in the world for all of these efforts.”