by Myke Miravite
Four years after the Azkals defied the odds and set football on fire in the Philippines, the national team will now play with the stakes as high as ever
MANILA, Philippines – It has been four years since the Azkals shot to stardom. After upsetting the then defending champions Vietnam right on their own turf, the Philippine football scene has risen to levels of popularity never before seen.
Today, the Philippine National Men’s Football Team’s historic 2-0 win over the AFF Suzuki Cup titlists looks as if it happened several eternities ago. It has been four years since Chris Greatwich headed in that Anton del Rosario cross for 1-nil. Phil Younghusband’s late-game assurance goal – which was celebrated with kisses from his teammates – can only be recalled by die-hard Azkals fanatics today.
Yes, the Azkals have picked up several big wins since then – a scintillating home win over Mongolia in Panaad, back-to-back Peace Cup titles, and of course, the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup bronze medal – but for them to reach new heights and establish themselves as one of the region’s rising powers, the Philippines will have to win it all – not a silver medal, nor the bronze – in Maldives .
Biggest test yet
The Azkals were once tagged as the region’s perennial whipping boys. Our Southeast Asian neighbors once looked forward to how many goals they would pour in against the Philippines. But after the Filipinos drew Singapore 1-all before pulling the rug from under the Vietnamese to enter the Suzuki Cup semifinals for the first time, the Azkals became household names and rock stars overnight.
Under coach Hans Michael Weiss, the Philippines raked in achievements after achievements. The Azkals copped silver in the 2011 Long Teng Cup before taking home the 2012 and 2013 Peace Cup titles. They also asserted themselves in Southeast Asia as they made it to the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup once more. To top it all, they shocked the continent when they stormed into the 2012 Challenge Cup Final Four and took home bronze, with Phil Younghusband claiming the Golden Boot award.
Amid all their feats, however, the Azkals also had to go through issues and controversies but the squad remained headstrong to their goal: to make a name for themselves. And true enough, the Philippines reached their highest-ever FIFA ranking at 127th and helped solidify the foundations of the country’s de facto premier football competition, the United Football League.
But the Philippine Football Federation knows we need more. We need to win more than a bronze medal; we need to win not only in the semis but all the way into the finals. We needed to scale new heights. Thus, Weiss was sacked to give way to German-American coach Thomas Dooley.
It has been all good so far as far as Dooley’s leadership is concerned. He addressed the team’s aging backline and gave chance to youngsters and previously unheralded players. As a matter of fact, in his debut with the Azkals versus Malaysia, five players earned their first national team caps.
It was a bold move for a coach who is just under a short one-year contract. There will be no room for any mistake as the big day loom around the corner. Dooley knew that the Challenge Cup is no acid test but he is committed to build up the squad for the future. We may still be relying on veterans in big games but up and coming stars like Patrick Deyto, Daisuke Sato, Kenshiro Daniels, and a lot more are surely not getting neglected.
With North Korea’s exclusion to the eight-nation tournament, the Philippines becomes one of the favorites to make it the top of the podium, which comes with a ticket to next year’s Asian Cup in Australia.
Although Dooley won’t be able to field in the Azkals’ strongest lineup, the Philippines remains as imposing as local football stars will be joined in by quality players from Europe as they take on Asia’s second-tier nations for a chance to play with the continent’s big boys in 2015.
Even without the lethal Filipino-Spaniard striker Javi Patino up front, there will be no shortage of looks for the Azkals as Phil Younghusband returns to the competition he owned two years ago. His brother James – when healthy – is probably one of the best players in the squad. Of course, we have our wunderkinds from Europe in Stephan Schrock, Jerry Lucena, Matrin Steuble, and Paul Mulders. Our defense, while relatively old, is packed with experience from Rob Gier and Juani Guirado.
Dooley has a bit of a problem, however, with our oversupply of quality goalkeepers. Aside from Deyto, we also have Fulham’s Neil Etheridge, and Servette’s Roland Muller. The same goes with the Philippines’ midfield where tens of players battle for limited slots.
Dooley will be in a tough position as he narrows down the squad to only the best talent we have who will make it to the final lineup. But whoever makes it on the pitch, the Azkals will be one tough team to beat come gameday.
The Philippines has Afghanistan, Laos, and Turkmenistan as their preliminary round assignments. The Azkals have not met reigning South Asian Football Federation titlists Afghanistan since 2006 where the match ended in a 1-all knot. Laos, meanwhile, beat the Azkals, 2-1, in a controversial 2012 match that was deemed not a full ‘A’ friendly match after the home squad fielded in non-FIFA accredited referees.
Turkmenistan – our 2012 Challenge Cup semifinals tormentors – on the other hand, will be the toughest team the Azkals will have to go through in the eliminations but if the 1-0 win by the Azkals last year in Rizal Memorial Stadium over them is any indication, there will be no major complications for the Azkals in the early goings of the competition.
Maldives, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, and Palestine tangle in the tournament’s other group.
With football slowly fading away in the background over the past couple of years, a continental title win by the Azkals might just be the sparkplug Philippine football has been waiting for.
The Philippines came into the spotlight when they pulled off the improbable despite their underdogs status. The difference this year, though, will be the Azkals will be entering the stadium with every eye trained on them and every tackle directed at them.
The Challenge Cup – which takes place from May 19-30 – will not be just a measurement of how the Azkals have progressed in matters of quality, but it will be a gauge of how Philippine football has evolved from being just an afterthought into a national passion enjoyed by Filipinos from football fields scattered from Aparri to Jolo.
Simply put, the Challenge Cup will be the Azkals’ biggest post-Hanoi miracle challenge, and a lot will surely be at stake. -