The Philippine Azkals’ World Cup dream

By Noel S. Villaflor

Ever since the Azkals’ fairytale run in the AFF Suzuki Cup finals last year, I’ve noticed how quite a number of people confuse the national team’s zeal for delusion.

Among the worst that I’ve come across are those who insist that the Azkals have become so overconfident they believe they can qualify for the World Cup. I normally ignore such comments, but following the results of last weekend’s friendly match between the national team and the UFL All-Stars, the skeptics are at it again, all guns blazing.

It would be helpful, therefore, put the Azkals’ and their handlers’ efforts in perspective. We can start with identifying what the team’s goals – short-term, mid-term and long-term – are.

First, I’ll have to backtrack a couple of months before the Suzuki Cup.

On the morning of the first Saturday of August last year, Dan Palami, the manager of the Philippine Men’s National Football team, brought core members of the Azkals to Cebu City for a free football clinic, a charity event with no fanfare.

There—on a tiny, unkempt football field—I met Dan for the first time. I wasted no time asking him about his role in the team and of course their goals. I wrote about it for this column, published the next day, with the title, “All it takes is one visionary.”

(Dan told me months later it was the first time someone had written about him as manager, and in such a light.)

What struck me in that interview with Dan was his answer when I asked him what his long-term goal was for the team, which is “qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.”

He said this without the slightest hint of hesitation. At that point, I thought Dan was joking, but I quickly realized the man was dead serious after he narrated an overview of the team’s objectives.

Of course, I also forgot what he had told me seconds earlier: “We want to make sure we’re focused on our short to medium-term objectives of raising the Philippine team’s Fifa rankings by winning international competitions,” Palami said.

Several months passed and the Azkals have inched their way up the rankings. They have since hired a no-nonsense German coach in Michael Weiss. So far, apart from the spectacular run in Vietnam, the team has qualified for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup and is now in deep preparations for the World Cup qualifiers.

During the team’s visit in Cebu City two weekends ago, I asked Dan about one of the team’s lesser known medium-term objectives: to barge into the Top 100 of the Fifa rankings.

I had come across the information from an online German website, Spox.com, which published a feature last January about the Azkal’s new German coach and his role in achieving team’s objectives.

“Our goal is to get into the top 100 for the medium term. We want to close the gap between the best Asian countries,” the article, in German, quoted Palami as saying.

I asked Dan during their visit if such a plan is still part of the Azkals blueprint.

He said yes. Right now the team is ranked 156, quite a number of rungs from the 100 target.

“To achieve that, we have to play more matches with other national teams,” said Dan, who cited the Four Nations Cup among Southeast Asian teams in October, among others.

As for the World Cup qualifiers matches, the Azkals won’t take any chances against Sri Lanka as they go deep into training in Germany.

“We will be playing against second and third-division club teams in the Bundesliga, and this will help us prepare for the next phase,” Dan said.

“We really stand a good chance. For the first time, we’d be getting past the first round of the World Cup qualifiers, finally, after more than 100 years of Philippine football,” Dan said.

And if they do get past Sri Lanka, what would success against a strong, experienced Kuwait team mean?

“If we get past Kuwait, that’s going to be crazy. It will be an even bigger football story than the Vietnam upset,” Dan said.

Against a team ranked 101st in the world, beating Kuwait might just herald the country’s entry into the Top 100.

And how great it would be to say: Just as planned. Published in Sun.Star Cebu