AFTER reaching the semifinals for the second straight time, the Philippine men’s national football team has convinced Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic that it will continue to be a force to reckon with in the AFF Suzuki Cup for years to come.
Having spent the last nine years as coach of the Lions, the Serbian has seen enough of Southeast Asian football to make a credible assessment of where the Azkals lie in the regional hierarchy.
Avramovic, who steered the Lions to titles in 2004 and 2007, had nothing but kind words for the Azkals, after watching Singapore come away with a narrow 1-0 win in the second leg of their semifinal duel at the Jalan Besar Stadium Wednesday night.
“I think in the next Suzuki Cup they will be even better,” Avramovic told Filipino reporters after the match. “There are some good, experienced players and I’m sure there are more players who will come.”
The Philippines’ rise in the region, Avramovic said, can only be good for football as it will keep the traditional powers on their toes. Singapore made the final against Thailand, which is also gunning for a record fourth straight title. The Thais beat Malaysia, 3-1, on aggregate.
“It’s always good for Southeast Asia that one extra quality team is here,” said the Serbian, referring to the Azkals.
Singapore actually played the Azkals twice in the lead up to the Suzuki Cup and lost both matches, including a 0-2 defeat at home in September. But Avramovic said those matches against the Azkals came in handy in creating their successful battle-plan in the semifinals.
“It helped me in a way [that] our players know better how the Filipino players [play] and then it was easy for me to put tactics,” said the 62-year-old, who also stressed the importance of more exposure for the Azkals to continue their rise.
“I think in some way I feel sorry for the Philippines because in some way they tried very hard. They have a good team. I just hope they continue [to] participate in competitions.”
Defender Daniel Bennett, who has 120 appearances for Singapore, also believes the Azkals will remain contenders in the region.
“They just have to keep on going. They are a good side,” said Bennett, whose first appearance for Singapore in 2002 came incidentally against the Philippines.
“I see the Philippines will be very very hard to beat in years to come,” said Bennett. “We’ve already seen from two years ago that its getting harder and harder to beat them. I think in two years, every team is going to fear them. They never give up.”