By Jack Biantan
The Philippine Azkals will face another tough test starting today (March 21) when they open their campaign in the AFC Challenge Cup group stage elimination round against the host nation, Myanmar.
It will definitely be not a walk on the park for the Azkals as the host will try to capitalize on their home advantage to secure an opening victory in front of their fans.
Historically, the White Angels have a great advantage over the Azkals, in spite of the scoreless draw result between them during the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup elimination round last December in Vietnam.
The White Angels football record is scary. They have won lots of regional titles compared to none for the Philippines. They won two football golds in the Asian games in 1966 and 1970. They also have five gold medals in the South East Asian Games (SEAG) winning in 1965, 67, 69, 71 and 1973. They also have qualified for the Olympics once in 1972 in Munich.
But since 1973, football has been in decline in Myanmar, then known as Burma. Their highest achievement since then was silver finish in the SEA games in 1993. From then, it was all downhill. The country’s political upheaval has been blamed for the decline.
However, starting in 2008, the Myanmar Football Association with the help of the ruling military junta, started to organize the Myanmar National League (MNL) to replace the semi-professional Myanmar Premier League.
The junta then ordered top businessmen to own clubs and to give $200,000 to each clubs as initial investments so that they could launch a nationwide professional league. In return, the junta would exempt the clubs from taxes for three years.
The Myanmar National League started only with eight clubs but added three more in 2010 season. The matches are played only in the two big stadiums in the capital Yangon because of the lack of facilities elsewhere. However, starting this year, the government is constructing two 30,000-seater stadiums outside Yangon.
With a national professional league now in full swing, the search for talents to play for the national team is now easier for Myanmar, unlike the Philippines where the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) has to spend a fortune looking for talents abroad.
It will take many more years before we could establish a professional league in our country, unless a military junta would dictate top businessmen to form and finance football clubs.
Are the Azkals ready?
The Azkals are a tough breed of men who would die for country just to get a good result. They are just fresh from a tough 1-2 loss to Mongolia in the elimination stage last March 15. They managed to enter the group stage with a 3-2 goal advantage after their 2-0 win in Bacolod City last Feb. 9.
However, the group stage tournament will be another level. The Azkals will be bringing in quite a number of untested players in Yangon. They will also miss their prolific striker and top scorer Phil Younghusband.
The newcomers who are supposed to boost the team are the under-23 recruits Fil-German Patrick Hinrichsen of German league club SC Eintracht Oberusel, David Basa of the University of Sto. Tomas and Yannick Tuason of the Kaya club and La Salle.
Fil-Spanish 26-year-old striker Angel Aldeguer Guirado of Spanish Division III club Deportivo Ronda of Malaga, Laguna-born 29-year-old Filipino-German William Espinosa and 24-year-old Army midfielder Ricardo Becite will complete their line-up.
Note that there will be seven new players, aside from the old reliables Chieffy Caligdong, Aly Borromeo, James Younghusband, Rob Gier, Jason Sabio, Neil Etheridge, Edward Sacapano, Roel Gener, Ray Jonsson, Simon Greatwich and Anton Del Rosario.
The question whether the new recruits would jell well with the veterans would only be answered after the tournament. A positive result would make everyone happy but a bad one would throw a lot of pressure to the management team. Source