The Azkals: From regional minnows to AFC Asian Cup 2019

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks back at how Philippines went from being minnows of their own region to competing at AFC Asian Cup 2019.

For a country that has traditionally been famous for sports such as boxing and basketball, Philippines surprisingly have a relatively long history in football.

But, until recently, it just has not been that and decorated.

Despite playing their first international match in 1913 and being able to call legendary Barcelona striker Paulinho Alcantara as one of their own, the Azkals – as the national team has been referred to in more modern times – were widely recognised as minnows of Southeast Asia.

From the inaugural edition of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship – presently known as the Suzuki Cup – in 1996, heavy defeats were fairly commonplace for Philippines, with the biggest of those coming in 2002 when they lost 13-1 to Indonesia.

James Younghusband has been part of the journey from the very start.

Quite remarkably, from being the whipping boys of the region, the Azkals are now one of just three ASEAN teams preparing to compete in January’s AFC Asian Cup 2019, alongside two traditional heavyweights in Thailand and Vietnam.

Much has been made about the 2010 Suzuki Cup being the turning point for Philippines.

Having failed to even qualify for the previous edition, Philippines went on to reach the knockout stage for the first time ever, drawing with Singapore and Myanmar but also claiming a historic 2-0 win over defending champions Vietnam in Hanoi.

 

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Not the story book ending we were looking for, but none the less, another emotional, mental and physical experience with the boys. I’d like to thank everyone who was part of our journey, the players, the coaching staff, the management, the supporters and our families and friends. You were all amazing! For all the sacrifices that had to be made and for all the challenges that were thrown at us that maybe most may not understand, but it wasn’t easy getting through the last month. Despite all that, everyone stuck by, worked their socks off and gave their everything for the honour of representing our country. Now it is time to rest, time to recover and time to be with our loved ones and celebrate another year we have been blessed with before we go again. Our Asian Cup preparations will start in a couple weeks in what should be a historic month for Philippine football. We are looking forward to matching up against Asia’s best. Hoping you can all continue to support us in the biggest competition for Asia’s and the world’s most played sport. Once again, maraming maraming salamat! 😊⚽🇵🇭 @theazkals #soccer #football #sports #philippines #team #affsuzukicup2018 #proud #passion #honour #afcasiancup #challenge

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Since then, the Azkals have gone from strength to strength, achieving three more semi-final appearances in the past four editions of the regional tournament, while also finishing runners-up at the now-defunct AFC Challenge Cup in 2014.

The simplest explanation for this resurgence would be that they have benefitted from an influx of foreign-born players of Philippine heritage, as well as a series of coaches who have managed to improve the team in their respective ways.

While their reigns may not always have ended on a positive note, the likes of Simon McMenemy, Michael Weiss and Thomas Dooley all played their part in Philippine football being where it is today.

Yet, the one person who perhaps does not get enough credit apart from within the fraternity is team manager Dan Palami.

With government funding for football not always ideal, Palami – a businessman by profession – has been known to use his own money to ensure the national team keeps progressing.

Team manager Dan Palami has been a big reason for Philippines’ rise.

When the Azkals take to the field at Dubai’s Al-Maktoum Stadium on January 7 to make their Asian Cup debut, against the mighty Korea Republic no less, Palami can take his seat on the bench and look on with pride and satisfaction knowing that his efforts have not gone to waste.

It is testament to how far Philippines have come that players such as Phil Younghusband, Stephan Schrock and Neil Etheridge are now fairly recognisable names not just in Southeast Asia, but across the entire continent.

Former Azkal Chris Greatwich is now an important member of the coaching staff.

Still, the job is not nearly completed.

While players like Premier League goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and former Bundesliga man Schrock have tasted some of the biggest competitions, they did have the benefit of spending their formative years in top European nations.

The next step for Philippines is to have development systems in place that ensure that even being born and bred on home soil is good enough for youngsters to earn a move to Europe.

Perhaps, for the likes of Amani Aguinaldo, Jovin Bedic and Patrick Deyto, all respectable players in their own right, they have arrived a generation too soon.

The Azkals enjoyed plenty of support at the recent AFF Suzuki Cup 2018.

Nonetheless, that is another story for another day.

For now, regardless of what they achieve in United Arab Emirates next month, everyone involved with Philippine football can look on with pride at how far they have come.

And, should the Azkals just manage to pick up a win at AFC Asian Cup 2019, there could just be a new turning point to look back on in years to come.

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