The news that star forward Javier Patino has reportedly pulled out of the Philippines squad raises a host of questions about the decision itself as well as exposing the AFF’s unusual tournament regulations.
As co-hosts the Philippines enter the 11th Suzuki Cup riding a wave of confidence, with strong local backing and huge expectations.
All the talk has been that this is both the strongest squad they’ve ever assembled as well possibly their best chance to claim their maiden title.
Much of that confidence was centred on the fact that in Spanish-born forward Patino the nation had, for the first time in a long time, a top-class striker in strong domestic form in a major league overseas.
Let’s face it there’s not been a glut of players from Southeast Asia who have cracked it in one of the continent’s ‘big three’ leagues of Japan, South Korea and China and in the 28-year-old the Azkals had such a player.
Born in Spain to a Filipino mother from Cebu, Patino came through the ranks at his hometown club just outside of Madrid before impressing in two seasons in the cutthroat Spanish second division which in turn earned him a move to Southeast Asian heavyweights Buriram in 2013.
After racking up the goals at better than one every match and a half, the dazzling lights of the Chinese Super League beckoned and he signed with Henan Jianye, making an immediate impression scoring twice on debut in a 3-1 win over Tianjin.
He scored 11 goals in 27 appearances in the 2015 season and backed that up this year with nine from 30 matches in all competitions, top scoring for the club as Henan managed to stave off relegation.
Little wonder then that the club was keen for him to stay on with a deal believed to be worth US$5 million over two years on the table.
The presumption around that is of course that the player himself would need to report healthy from the off-season break with the rather large caveat for Patino being that he was expected to spend a fair chunk of that time on national duty with the Philippines where injury was a clear risk.
With speculation swirling for several weeks that his participation was less than certain reports surfaced in the local press today that Henan has reportedly ‘prevented’ the player from joining the national team as the dates fall outside the official ‘FIFA window.’
Whilst they’re well within their rights to do so the timing seems rather unusual to say the least, given that the Super League wound up at the end of October with most clubs not reporting back for pre-season until next month.
Patino’s participation in the Suzuki Cup then would clearly have no impact whatsoever on the club outside of the fact that he would have a reduced break heading into the new league campaign and it naturally raises the question as to whether the decision was in fact made the club or rather by the player himself so as not to risk what is a hefty new contract.
The forward is not the only Philippines player in this predicament with defender Daisuke Sato also reportedly not released from his Romanian club, Politehnica Iasi, but at least that’s more understandable given that their season is actually ongoing and his team has lost six in a row and are struggling near the bottom of the top flight.
What it also does is raise some further questions around players commitment to the national cause (and that’s not limited to the Philippines) as well as perhaps some deeper ones over just why players born and raised overseas have sought to take the nationality of an AFC nation which then conveniently allows them to move within the region with a greater deal of ease than otherwise would have been possible.
Just as importantly it also raises the question of why the AFF – in the face of pretty much every other major football tournament on the planet – only requires final squad lists to be submitted 24 hours before a team’s opening match.
With the goal being to see more Southeast Asian players move to stronger clubs outside the region there’s increasing calls to try and find a workable way that the tournament can be held on official dates but until then the bizarre last-minute squad deadline has lead to the situation that the Philippines now find themselves in.
That’s not a win for anyone except a wealthy Chinese club and a player about to become a whole lot wealthier.
As understandable as the move is from Patino (assuming he wasn’t ‘leant’ on by the club), who can clearly secure his future by sitting out the tournament, there are many football romantics across the region who still see national football as the pinnacle of the game and many children from dire economic situations across the Philippines who will be denied the chance to see the player they had hoped lead them to the Suzuki Cup title.
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