by Joaquin Henson
MANILA, Philippines - Philippine Football Federation (PFF) technical director and former national coach Aris Caslib plans to build up the Azkals through a comprehensive selection process where at least five players are nominated for each position with the goal of winning the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup in 2012.
“If we have to check our under-23 team down to the under-19, we have to do it with clear reason and direction,” said Caslib in explaining how to strengthen the Azkals. “The attitude in the selection process must be inclusive and well-planned.”
Caslib, who was the national coach before Desmond Bulpin and Simon McMenemy, said the process must involve recruiting standouts from local and overseas leagues.
“When we started opening our door to Filipino players based outside the country, we informed them that they had to come over for inspection,” said Caslib. “Chris Greatwich and Chad Gould did it in 2004 by staying for a month before competition. Phil and James Younghusband were inspected early in 2005 before the Southeast Asian Games which we hosted. This formula must be reaffirmed and be a policy for overseas players who would like to join the national team. The reason for this is to get quality players for the national team. The possible exceptions are those with top flight clubs in Europe.”
The recruitment and evaluation process has elevated several Fil-foreigners to the national squad. At the recent AFF Suzuki Cup, the Azkals were reinforced by overseas recruits Neil Etheridge of Fulham, Rob Gier of Ascot United, Ray Jonsson of Grindavik, Jason de Jong of Veendam, Greatwich of the Morris County Colonials and the Younghusband brothers. Other Fil-foreigners in the national pool are Mark Drinkuth of Agon Dusseldorf, Gino Pavone of the Bay Area Ambassadors, Manuel Ott of Ingolstadt II and Gould.
Etheridge, the country’s No. 1 goalkeeper, is the third youngest of the Fil-foreigners at 20. Gier is 30, Jonsson 31, James Younghusband 24, De Jong 20, Greatwich 27, Phil Younghusband 23, Greatwich 27, Drinkuth 19, Pavone 22, Ott 18 and Gould 28. The age limit for the SEA Games is 23, making only Etheridge, De Jong, Drinkuth, Pavone and Ott eligible. Phil Younghusband will be 24 when the next SEA Games begin in Indonesia in November.
Caslib said on the domestic front, priority must be given to players who have risen from the national youth program and are actively playing before elevation to the Azkals pool.
“Experience provides maturity, mental toughness, quality decision-making and stability,” he said. “However, late bloomers must be considered provided there is good reason for the player to be included. It is imperative that each national player plays at least 40 to 50 matches before international competition. Previously, national players got to play at least 30 to 36 matches in the Ang Liga.”
Caslib said there must be cooperation among club coaches to release their players to the national team at the start of training for an international tournament.
“It is imperative to release players if they are invited to play for the national team,” continued Caslib. “Some coaches don’t release players for reasons of safety of their own program in their respective colleges, universities and clubs. But we have to take a positive risk in order to raise football standards in their team and in our country. All coaches in the country must develop the habit of going for education courses. Also, we must provide coaches with a venue where potential players are selected and not only consider their own players in their respective clubs but the best players available.”
Caslib said no doubt, a competitive local league and the opportunity to play overseas in friendlies are vital in strengthening the Azkals.
“This year, we played against Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong,” he noted. “We also played against clubs in Taiwan and Thailand. International exposure is important to stabilize our match experience. Playing against stronger opponents must be scheduled properly to reach our objective in 2012.”
Caslib said retaining McMenemy, team manager Dan Palami and the core of the Azkals is a priority.
“We hope Mr. Palami stays and manages the Azkals,” continued Caslib. “He showed great respect with the technical side under McMenemy’s leadership. He allowed the coach to make decisions in the preparation, selection of players and approach to the competition. We must keep the team but strengthen it. The Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup in March is coming and we play Mongolia. We will host the first match and we must prepare our stadium and support our team. We should allow our players to play their strong side and protect them in training by not exposing them to all the problems we encountered this year.”
Caslib said support for the Azkals must be widespread to move the team forward. “We should encourage partnership with companies that believe in football,” he said. “Local government units must be involved in grassroots development in order to continuously produce youth players for the national team.”