SEEKING to sustain the inroads made the past few years, the Philippine Azkals face bigger challenges this year as they bid for a place in the AFC Asian Cup as well as aiming for a first title in the AFF Suzuki Cup which the country is hosting in November.
Already out of contention for a place in the third round of Asian World Cup Qualifying, the Azkals seek the next best thing by cracking the 24-nation Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2019.
The Azkals need to finish third in their qualifying group to gain an outright place in the third round of Asian Cup qualifying. They are currently in third place, just ahead of Bahrain on goal difference in Group H, but behind North Korea and Uzbekistan.
But the Azkals face the top two teams for their last two assignments starting with the Uzbeks in Tashkent on March 24 and against North Korea in Manila five days later.
For the first time in history, the Azkals will enjoy home field advantage in the group stage of the Suzuki Cup, the same tournament that catapulted the national team to fame.
The Azkals reached the semifinals in the last three editions of the tournament and team manager Dan Palami feels it’s about time the country finally claims the title of Southeast Asia’s most prestigious tournament to also rejuvenate the sport in the country.
The Philippine Football Federation plans to launch the national football league in early 2017 and Palami thinks the Azkals’ performance in the Suzuki Cup will also impact the reception of the league.
Crowd attendance has been down in recent national team home games with the match against Yemen drawing 6,500 fans last Nov. 12 when the Azkals suffered a 0-1 defeat.
“Getting to the finals or being champions will give Philippine football the necessary boost to launch its national league,” Palami said. “The performance of the Azkals will hopefully rejuvenate the interest in the sport.”