Uneasy start

By: Artchil B. Fernandez

THE Philippine Azkals, the national men’s football team, is once again on a campaign to elevate Pinoy football to greater heights.

They are participating in the joint qualification for the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup.  The 2022 World Cup will be hosted by Qatar while the 2023 Asian Cup will be held in China.  Forty-six Asian nations are taking part in the qualification. (for fielding ineligible players in the 2019 Asian Cup qualification, Timor Leste was disqualified from joining the 2023 Asian Cup qualification  but is allowed to participate in the 2022 World Cup qualification.)

During the draw for the second round of qualification, the Philippines was bracketed in Group A.  Composing the group are China, ranked 74th and Syria, ranked 83rd. The other teams in the group are Maldives, ranked 151st and Guam ranked 193rd.  Philippines is currently 124th in the FIFA ranking.

The top two teams in each group (there are eight groups) will advance to the next round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup.  The four best runners-up across all groups will advance to the third round and Asian Cup. The remaining four runners-up will advance to the Asian Cup qualifying third round.  The four best fourth-placed teams across all groups will advance to the Asian Cup qualifying third round. The remaining four fourth-placed teams will advance to the Asian Cup qualifying play-off round.

Philippines is joining the qualification with a re-branded management team and an awkward set-up. Appointed head coach is Serbian coach Goran Milojevic but he will be under Scott Cooper, the designated assistant team manager

Cooper had been handling the Azkals since the departure of Swedish Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson after this year’s Asian Cup campaign. What prevented Cooper from taking on the top coaching job is his lack of UEFA Pro Coaching License, which is a FIFA requirement. Milojevic has a license.

Milojevic is the fourth coach of the Azkals since the renaissance of Philippine football in 2010 with the ‘Miracle in Hanoi.’ He has coaching experience in several clubs in Europe. His last assignment before coming to the Philippines is with the Montenegrin top division side FK Mornar.

Twenty-three players were called for the national team. Goalkeepers: Patrick Deyto (Suphanburi FC), Michael Falkesgaard (Bangkok United), Kevin Hansen (HB Køge); Defenders: Amani Manuel Aguinaldo (PKNP FC), Mikel Justin Baas (AZ Alkmaar), Marco Alessandro Casambre (Chainat Hornbill), Carlos De Murga, Sean Patrick Kane (both Ceres Negros FC), Daisuke Sato (Muangthong United), Alvaro Silva (Suphanburi FC), Martin Steuble (Port FC); Midfielders:  Yrick Gallantes (Gala Fairydean Rovers FC), Angel Guirado (Chonburi FC), Kevin Ingreso (Buriram United), Manuel Ott (Ratchaburi Mitr Phol FC), Mike Ott, Stephan Schrock (both Ceres Negros FC), Iain Ramsay (Sukhothai FC), John-Patrick Strauss (FC Erzgebrige Aue) and Forwards:  Mark Andrew Hartmann (Nakhon Ratchasima Mazda FC), Javier Patino (Buriram United), Jose Elmer Porteria (Ceres Negros FC), Patrick Reichelt (Melaka United).

Most of the players are Azkals veterans but there are some surprises. The return of Angel Guirado to the national team after a long absence has caused a stir. The inclusion of two youngsters from Europe also intrigued many.  Justin Baas is a 19-year-old centerback currently attached with AZ Alkmaar’s Under-21 side from Netherlands. Scotland-based Yrik Galantes is an attacking midfielder loaned by Scottish side Hibernian to Gala Fairydean Rovers. Conspicuously absent from the national team are the Younghusband brothers who have been the face of Philippine football for years.

The Azkals faced their first test last September 5 against Syria in their home turf at Panaad Stadium in Bacolod.  Last time the two teams met eighteen years ago, the Philippines heavily lost to Syria, 0 – 12.

The match against Syria started well, with the Philippines scoring first in the 6th minute through a Patiño header.  But the Syrians struck back and the first half ended with Syria ahead, 2 – 1.  In the second half, Syria added two more goals before Mike Ott narrowed the gap in the 84th minute by scoring.  But Syria was not finished yet, scoring another goal before the final whistle.  The game ended in favor of the visitors, 2 – 5.

There was no time for the Azkals to rest as they clashed with Guam in their territory last September 10.  The pressure on the Azkals to win was greater after absorbing a loss in their first game.  Taking on the lower seeded Guam, the Azkals restored their competitiveness in the tournament with the drubbing of Guam 4 – 1.

Angel Guirado was the first to score, proving that he is worthy of his call-up.  Veteran striker Patrick Reichelt and team captain Stephan Schrock stretched the lead of the Philippines to 3 – 0 before Guam scored on penalty in the 67th minute.  In the 81th minute, Patrick Strauss restored the 3-point lead with his first goal for the Azkals.

On the whole, the Azkals had an uneasy start in the first set of games in the second round of the joint qualification with a win and a loss.  But the challenge ahead is harder especially when they face China on October 15 in a home game at Panaad Stadium.  In a friendly match against China early this year, they lost 2 – 0

The home and away format of the qualifier gives the Azkals the chance to rally the home crowd for support and increase their chance to make it to the next round of qualification.  Realistically, the 2022 World Cup qualification is too high for the national team reach at this point.  What the Azkals had a fighting chance is to book a return ticket to the Asian Cup in 2023 after they made their debut appearance this year.

(Congratulations to Cefris Casis and Alvin Tung for passing the September 2019 medical board exam.)