By Cedelf Tupas
COLOMBO—Skipper Aly Borromeo watched the World Cup final pitting Spain and the Netherlands at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg last year and wondered if he would ever play a single match in the sport’s biggest stage, let alone get a shot at making it there.
Borromeo and his fellow Philippine Azkals finally get that precious crack at the tournament starting Wednesday here when they battle Sri Lanka in the first round of the 2014 Fifa World Cup Qualifiers at the Sugathadasa Stadium in this port city in the Indian Ocean.
“Every football player dreams of playing in the World Cup,” said Borromeo, a veteran of the national side since 2004.
“And ever since I’ve played for the national team, that’s always made me sad because we haven’t sent a delegation even to the qualifiers. We know its a long shot but at least we’ve taken a step closer.”
Kickoff is at 4 p.m. DST (6:30 p.m. in Manila) with the Azkals looking to grab the advantage against an unfancied Sri Lankan side, before the series shifts to Manila on Sunday at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Although the Azkals have been tipped as favorites to prevail, German coach Michael Weiss said the Sri Lankans cannot be underestimated.
Add that to the fact that the Sri Lankans have played considerably well at home.
“It will not be easy,” said Weiss, who took the squad’s reins early this year. “They have been training for three months and have been playing together for years. No one should think that this will be just a passers-by match. In today’s football, no one should be underestimated.”
Just how tough are the Sri Lankans at home? Weiss pointed out the fact that Kuwait, the Middle East powerhouse that awaits the winner of this tie, managed just a scrambling 1-nil win here a few years ago.
“We are not yet on that level where we can clearly dominate,” Weiss said.
Team manager Dan Palami, who had earlier talked up the Azkals’ chances, said they are approaching the match with “cautious optimism.”
“We don’t know what the conditions will be [today],” said Palami. “Sri Lanka is going to defend their turf the best way they can. We will try to overwhelm them in the first 10 minutes.”
Jang Jung, Sri Lanka’s Korean coach, opted to downplay his team’s chances.
“Our preparation is not enough,” said Jung. “We don’t know the Philippines but it’s going to be a close match.”
The Azkals started their buildup for the match in Manila two months ago and wrapped it up with a high-intensity two-week camp in Germany that gave Weiss a glimpse of the immense attacking potential of the squad as well as its defensive frailties.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, opted to stay in Colombo for its preparations.
Just as the team had feared, Ray Jonsson failed to make the trip here yesterday because of his commitment with his Icelandic club, Grinvadik.
Weiss is expected to tap Paul Mulders, an attacking midfielder, to take Jonsson’s place at leftback in the starting eleven, which will include Borromeo, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, defenders Anton del Rosario and Rob Gier, midfielders Chieffy Caligdong, James Younghusband, Manny Ott and Stephan Schrock and forwards Angel Guirado and Phil Younghusband.