With all the hoopla that’s surrounding the upcoming home and away World Cup qualifying match pitting the Philippine Azkals and the Sri Lanka Lions, it’s difficult not to get carried away by unrealistic expectations. I had an interesting conversation with Bert Honasan, the Philippines’ Mr. Football in 1977 and currently one of the technical coordinators at the Philippine Football Federation. Bert shares the same lament. He feels that the mainstream media does not know enough about the relative standing of Philippine Football in the global football community and therefore may be feeding the unrealistic expectations of the casual fan.
The current qualification campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil is the first one that the Philippines has participated in since attempting to qualify for the 2002 World Cup jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea. We did not participate in the qualifying rounds for both the 2006 World Cup in Germany and the 2010 World Cup hosted by South Africa.
In trying to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, the Philippines was placed in a group which included Oman, Syria and Laos. In the double round robin group competition, the Philippines did not win a single game – losing 5 and drawing 1 (a 1-1 draw with Laos in the only game played in Manila). To say that the campaign was an embarrassment is to understate things. In the 5 games that we lost, the scores were – 12-0, 5-1, 7-0, 2-0 and 2-0. Including the drawn game, the Philippines scored 2 goals (Jimmy Dona and Yanti Barsales – yes, the same indomitable Yanti Barsales who still plays for the Azkals).
The Challenge Cup is a tournament among second-tier Asian countries whose winners eventually qualify for the Asian Cup (where powerhouses like Japan, Australia and South Korea, among others play). To get to the Asian Cup, the Philippines has to win either the 2012 Challenge Cup or the 2014 Challenge Cup. The Asian Cup is held every 4 years while the Challenge Cup is held every 2 years.
To even get to the Challenge Cup tournament proper, we had to go through an initial pre-qualifying round (the one against Mongolia) and a final qualifying round (that tournament in Myanmar where we drew with Myanmar and Palestine and beat Bangladesh). The reason for the multiple qualifying maze was the dismal ranking of the Philippines. The Challenge Cup tournament will be held from March 3rd to March 18th next year at a still undetermined location.
The other recent tournament that the Philippines participated in was the Suzuki Cup which is basically the Southeast Asian championship. This was the tournament where we lost to Indonesia in the semifinals while beating defending champion, Vietnam, along the way.
To put things in perspective, this is the first time we have qualified for this level of the Challenge Cup since it was shifted to the current format in 2008 and the semi-final finish was the highest ever achieved by the Philippines in the Suzuki Cup.
Going back to the World Cup qualification campaign, Sri Lanka will be our first roadblock. Do we stand a chance?
The last FIFA rankings released April 11th showed the Philippines ranked #155 while Sri Lanka was ranked #171. But as coach and current PFF Technical Committee head, Aris Caslib, said – the rankings don’t really tell the whole story. Sri Lanka did participate in the Challenge Cup final qualifying round (albeit in a different group from the Philippines) and finished dead last in its group losing even to war-torn Afghanistan.
Most of the players of the Sri Lankan team play in their premier domestic league called the Dialog Champions League. A couple play in Maldives which has a slightly better domestic league than Sri Lanka and one player (Defender Dennis Maharajan) who plays in England for Edgware Town FC, a team that participates in the Spartan South Midlands League – a low-level league in England.
Half of the Azkals play in the UFL while the other half play overseas. Of those who play overseas, most of them play in credible leagues including goalkeeper Neil Etheridge who plays for Fulham in the English Premiere League – one of the toughest leagues in the world.
So from what can be gleaned from all these, the Azkals should win over Sri Lanka.
If they do, they go up against Kuwait in the next round in another home and away series. Kuwait is ranked #101, 54 places ahead of the Philippines. Forget about the Challenge Cup, Kuwait played in the Asian Cup (although it did finish last in its group). Kuwait played in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Almost all of its players play in their domestic league where competition is miles ahead of any Asian domestic league except Japan and maybe South Korea.
The Azkals have already accomplished a lot. They look like they will add another feather in their cap in the fixtures against Sri Lanka. A reasonable and fairly knowledgeable football fan will probably say that’s probably as far as we can go for now. That Kuwait will end our run. But don’t tell that to Dan Palami. Dan thinks the Azkals have a decent chance against Kuwait and should at least acquit themselves fairly well.
The bottom line is this – the Azkals have done us proud by achieving what they have achieved. It has been a long, hard and definitely rocky road. Philippine football is alive and kicking but there is definitely more work that needs to be done to ensure that the foundation that has been built will not be wasted.
In the meantime, GO AZKALS!
Published in Ladrido.net