SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin Henson (The Philippine Star)
Fil-foreigners fly in and fly out when they’re called to play for the national football team. It’s a guessing game as to which players will show up for a tournament. Several Fil-foreigners are tied down to contracts overseas. Although they’re allowed an occasional leave of absence for “national duty,” nobody’s ever sure if permission will be given by the higher-ups of their mother clubs. Often, permission is granted late and players scramble to find flights to make it on time for a competition, arriving with a bad case of jet lag.
No question, the Fil-foreigners are skilled and talented. They wouldn’t be signed up in foreign leagues if they weren’t. But there’s such a thing as chemistry – not only in terms of playing together on the pitch but also in terms of getting along with teammates off the pitch.
When the Azkals lost a 2-1 decision to Mongolia in Ulan Bator last week, it was clear that the freezing weather wasn’t the Philippines’ only adversary. It was also lack of chemistry. The absence of Rob Gier, Jason de Jong and Neil Etheridge was conspicuous.
“We weren’t complete,” lamented Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president Mariano Araneta.
But that’s the reality of football, particularly in the case of the Philippines which is classified in the lowest of three tiers of competitiveness in Asia. The Philippines is in the “emerging nations” category. Defending Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup champion North Korea is in the first class of “developed nations” while Myanmar is in the second class of “developing nations.” Given the Philippines’ classification, it’s not likely that Fil-foreigners will stay in the country and play if they have attractive options overseas.
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Azkals coach Michael Weiss’ situation is unenviable. He has to juggle players in and out of the lineup, accommodating Fil-foreigners who come and go to reinforce his cast. How he has been able to keep the team together in spite of challenging conditions is a tribute to his leadership. Weiss is clearly a master of adjustment and that’s a noteworthy quality.
How to stabilize the Azkals for the long term is an issue that must be addressed now.
Team manager Dan Palami said the other day he’s now looking at building up the country’s under-23 squad that will compete in the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Indonesia this November. That’s why the Azkals brought in three under-23 recruits to Yangon. Palami is obviously trying to establish some kind of a foundation for the under-23 team – a foundation that can only be firmed by stability.
A former national football coach said recently the practice of importing Fil-foreigners for short-term duty must be rationalized because in the long run, it could be detrimental.
“Ideally, the national team should enlist only up to five or six top Fil-foreigners,” said the coach. “We should build the team around 14 to 15 locals who stay in the country. The Fil-foreigners should also live in the country and play in local leagues. They should show the fans their spirit of patriotism. It’s difficult to understand how we can generate teamwork with players who come and go. Where is the team spirit? When the Fil-foreigners arrive, they hardly have time to practice. The massive presence of Fil-foreigners may not be good. It’s a system of one player here, one player there, depending on who’s available. It may be fine if we’re winning but if we’re losing, particularly as we begin to play a higher level of competition, it won’t make sense anymore.”
At least, Fil-British stars Phil and James Younghusband have decided to settle in Manila. But players like Rob Gier, Neil Etheridge, De Jong, Simon and Chris Greatwich, Ray Jonsson, Patrick Hinrichsen, Angel Guirado, Jason Sabio and Jerry Lucena are transients.
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My opinion is once Weiss settles in with the Azkals, he’ll know exactly which positions the team will require reinforcements. Weiss is relatively new on the job and it will take a little time before he figures out how to get the best out of the national team, given the talent available. Ultimately, he will rely on a nucleus and enlist reinforcements to plug the holes in the weak spots which shouldn’t be more than four or five at the most. That way, the Azkals won’t be strangers to each other too much whenever they take to the field.
Meanwhile, PFF technical director and former national coach Aris Caslib said scouting of opponents in Myanmar is crucial. The talk is Myanmar is fielding a team that is radically different from the squad that the Philippines held to a scoreless draw during the Suzuki Cup group stage in Vietnam last year. But since Myanmar is the Azkals’ first draw, the Philippines won’t enjoy the luxury of scouting the team – probably, a deliberate ploy by the hosts.
“The importance of the competition in Myanmar must inspire our team to be in the final stage of the Challenge Cup,” said Caslib. “Our motivation is we Filipinos are behind the Azkals. As for strategy, I think we should play our style of game, when to play direct and build up. We were affected by the absence of some key players in Mongolia even though Eduard Sacapano played decent in the match.”