What went wrong?

By Joshua Corcuera

The 2022 FIFA World Cup is finally over as Argentina beat France on penalties, 4-2, after 120 minutes of action-packed play ended in a 3-3 stalemate.

The Argentines, led by Lionel Messi, lifted their third World Cup trophy, their first since 1986. In football-crazy Argentina, an estimated 6 million to 7 million people welcomed their national football team. News reports and social media posts showed major roads in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, filled with huge crowds waving flags of white and light blue. Furthermore, Messi’s Instagram post of him celebrating is the most-liked in the social media platform with 69.72 million likes as of writing.

In basketball-crazy Philippines, however, news of the events surrounding the FIFA World Cup appear to be minimal and do not attract enormous reactions from social media users—arguably except for the Final between Argentina and France. To be fair, however, there are tens of thousands of Filipino social media users who seem to be aware of the key events in the sporting event as they react to Argentina’s victory.

While this is good progress for football in the Philippines, support for the Philippine national football team—the Azkals—seem to be lacking. I would bet that some Filipinos that rooted for Messi—or maybe even France’s Mbappe—are unaware that our own country is participating in an ASEAN-wide football tournament, the 2022 AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup. As a matter of fact, we played our first game last Tuesday in Phnom Penh against Cambodia where we lost against the hosts, 3-2.

For me, it was a devastating defeat. It was a humbling learning experience considering that we are the higher-ranked team, the Azkals are ranked 133rd in the world while Cambodia is ranked 177th globally. Furthermore, we defeated the same team in 2013 with a score of 8-0. Lastly, the Azkals are seen by many as one of the teams vying for a spot in the semi-finals in the competition. What went wrong?

One logical explanation is the squad of the Azkals—it is new and young, it may be promising, but it needs more experience. The statistics of the team were good to be fair, we held the majority of the ball possession and had 17 shots, 7 of which went on target. We had decent chances, but the defense was something I did not want to watch. It definitely needed improvement, something I am looking forward to in the Azkals’ next match against Brunei this Friday, December 23, 6 PM, to be held at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila.

Another explanation is the absence of some of our key players. The Azkals have some experienced players who are not available to play for the tournament for various reasons. This is definitely not good news since we are forced to field a team that is generally young with the exception of only a few notable players.

But what I would argue as one of the leading explanations to our loss is the lack of training programs for local football players who have the potential to excel in the sport. Although there is a so-called Azkals Development Team (ADT) playing in the Philippines Football League, this was merely founded in 2020 and, for me, should have been done a long time ago. To be fair, it is better than nothing. Hopefully though, the ADT would be able to unleash the potential of our local youth who play football well and, hopefully, they will help improve football in the country.