What happened to the Azkals?

By Joshua Corcuera

The Philippine national under-22 football team sent to Cambodia for the 2023 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games had a disastrous night last Wednesday, May 4.

As of writing, the Philippine men’s football team is at the bottom of Group A with just a single point in three matches. They suffered a 3-0 defeat against Indonesia in its opening match, then drew 1-1 with hosts Cambodia before a huge crowd, and endured an embarrassing 3-0 loss against Timor-Leste, a team widely considered to be among the weakest in the entirety of Asia.

The results were frustrating. I would personally understand if we lost by three goals against Indonesia since they have been crazy for football for a very long time, and they have a population more than twice as large as ours. But to Timor Leste? And by three goals? It is embarrassing to see foreigners making fun of us, and it is important to note that football is the most popular sport in the world and in ASEAN.

While watching the match against Timor Leste, I cannot help but be disappointed at how our national eleven played. It is quite apparent that the players from Timor Leste were quicker, more energetic, and more determined to score goals. I was extremely startled to see the Philippines struggling to hold ball possession and to create chances. In short, Timor Leste was the obvious better side in my opinion.

What happened?

Honestly, the quality of the men’s national football team in recent years has declined as compared to the mid-2010s which many would argue as the greatest years in modern Philippine football. After all, we managed to qualify to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and consistently made it to the Final Four of the ASEAN Football Federation Cups during the previous decade.

With the retirement of various key players in the likes of the Younghusband brothers and Stephan Schrock, the new generation of the Azkals is still struggling to emulate the strength of 2010s Azkals.

Hopefully, the Azkals would be able to bounce back stronger by enjoying more support from the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) as far as skills development is concerned. Moreover, it is imperative for Philippine football to continue its domestic football league and to aim that local players’ skills would be developed to standards similar to our neighboring countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia at least.

Furthermore, the option of attracting half-Filipino players to play for the Azkals seems to be not a good idea in the long-term. Instead, the PFF should strengthen its grassroots program by coordinating actively with local government units to promote football among the youth. This is especially useful in provinces where playing grounds or fields are spacious enough for children to play the sport.

As of now, however, there is nothing much we can do but reflect, strategize, plan, and execute. Hopefully, the actions being taken by Philippine football at present would be much more effective in creating a stronger Azkals not only in the short run, but also in the long term.