By Joaquin Henson
MANILA, Philippines - Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Mariano Araneta Jr. said yesterday the national team is definitely playing in the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia, on Nov. 11-25 but the lineup will be radically different from the cast that went to the semifinals of the recent Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup.
The age limit for men’s football in the SEA Games has been 23 since 2001 with the Philippines participating in only one of the last five stagings. The last time the Philippines played football in the SEA Games was in 2005 when the national team failed to qualify for the semifinals, losing twice (Thailand, 1-0, Malaysia, 4-2) and winning once (Cambodia, 4-2) in the preliminaries at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City. The closest the Philippines came to claiming a football medal in the biennial event was in 1991 when the nationals lost a 2-0 decision to Singapore in the playoff for bronze.
In the recent Suzuki Cup, only six players will be under 23 when the next SEA Games begin – goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, 20, fullback David Basa, 21, midfielder Mark Ferrer, 21, midfielder Jason de Jong, 20, midfielder Mark Drinkuth, 19 and goalkeeper Christopher Camcam, 16. That means the Younghusband brothers, Chris Greatwich, Aly Borromeo, Ian Araneta, Ray Jonsson and Anton del Rosario will not be eligible.
“Of course, we have to play in the SEA Games,” said Araneta, voted unanimously to serve deposed PFF president Jose Mari Martinez’ last year in his term during the National Congress last Nov. 27. “I’ve asked our team manager Dan Palami to inquire if we might be able to enlist a few exceptions for the SEA Games. Meanwhile, we will prepare for the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Challenge Cup. We will host the first of two games against Mongolia on Feb. 9. If Mongolia agrees, we will host both games in the Philippines.”
Araneta referred to the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers where the Philippines will battle Mongolia in a home-and-away series similar to the Suzuki Cup semifinal and final formats. The first match will likely be held at the Panaad Stadium. If the Philippines overcomes Mongolia, it will move on to face Myanmar on March 21, Palestine on March 23 and Bangladesh on March 25 in the Challenge Cup stepladder to determine teams to play in the prestigious AFC Asia Cup. The AFC Challenge Cup will not impose age limits on players.
Araneta said the coming year will also start the zonal World Cup qualifiers.
Former national coach Juan Cutillas said to ride the momentum of the Azkals’ semifinal finish in the Suzuki Cup, the team must recruit bigger, stronger and younger local players.
“We have to abandon the policy of using Armed Forces players just because they are available,” he said. “It was embarrassing to see (some of) our local players (between) 34 and 37 standing no more than 5-4. It is a must to select a squad of the best preferable young players in the country and train them on a full-time basis, provide them with all they need, such as accommodations
, education and allowances, arrange for training abroad for periods of time. That will be the basis of a strong national team.”
Cutillas said the team has to beef up its midfield line. “We have to get better staff in the middle field,” he pointed out. “To improve our game, we need to put up a really strong local competition. A lot of credit goes to the whole Philippine delegation.”
Araneta also noted the crucial role of the midfielders. “The midfielders have to give more support to our two strikers consistently,” he said. “We have shown that if we commit more players in offense, we can create chances to score goals.”
Negros Occidental Football Association president Charlie Cojuangco said the semifinals showed that the Azkals need to work on match fitness. Cojuangco also stressed the importance of establishing a world-class facility and hoped the Suzuki Cup fever won’t die down to leave football unnoticed in media again.
AFF vice president and former PFF president Johnny Romualdez said the key to improve lies in building a deep bench. “We need a young team with a good future,” he said. “I don’t favor more than seven Fil-foreigners. Our grassroots program since 1998 should now begin to provide more locals. We should also continue to recruit top Fil-foreigners.”
PFF technical director and former national coach Aris Caslib said it is critical that Palami and national coach Simon McMenemy stay on the job.
“We pray that Palami stays to manage the national team until 2012,” said Caslib. “The best thing about Palami’s management style is he fully understands the support a national team needs. 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.”
As for McMenemy, Caslib said the PFF should try to convince the Briton to continue coaching the Azkals at least until 2012 for the next Suzuki Cup.
“We also need to strengthen the coaching staff by providing a goalkeeper coach,” added Caslib. “Although Neil is attached with Fulham FC, he still needs somebody whom he can talk with at the same time, train other goalkeepers of the national team. We need a scouting coach to check opponents and provide inputs during a game. A conditioning coach should also be considered. We typically enjoy a height advantage in the Suzuki Cup but strength and speed are worth developing. The coaching staff must be encouraged to continuously go for higher studies or licensing in order to enhance their approach to training and matches, managing players, scouting talent and studying opponents.”