By Roy Moore
The latest football ELO ratings show that the Philippines is the most improved country in the world this year. Jumping 22 places from 201st to 179th in the world, the Azkals have increased their rating by 170 points, more than any other nation.
ELO ratings are considered by footballing enthusiasts to be often more reliable than FIFA rankings. Devised by a chess grandmaster the ELO ratings take into account the quality of the opposition as teams get more points for a win over a tougher team.
Teams can even earn points if they lose against a team ranked much higher than them, such as when Kuwait beat the Philippines 2-1 at the Rizal Memorial Stadium. The Philippines gained three points despite the loss because they were expected to lose by a much heavier scoreline against Kuwait, who are ranked 61st in the world.
Most successful year
Philippine football, this year, experienced one of its most successful years in decades. The Azkals have made remarkable progress this year, making history on several occasions.
The Philippines’ campaign began at the end of 2010 when they reached the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup. The Azkals beat Vietnam and drew with Singapore in the group stages to clinch a Final Four berth.
After the controversy of having to play their home leg of the semi finals in Indonesia rather than in the Philippines, the Azkals still managed to use that experience as a platform to improve more than any other country in the world.
The Philippines (166) had to beat Mongolia (163), a team rated higher in the FIFA rankings, in the qualifiers in order to clinch a berth in the Group stages of the Challenge Cup.
The Azkals defeated Mongolia, 2-0, in the first leg in Bacolod before dropping a 3-2 decision in an away match in Ulan Bator. The Philippines won 3-2 on aggregate to qualify.
After qualifying for the first group stage, the Philippines drew to hosts Burma and eventual group winners Palestine, needing to beat Bangladesh in the final game of the group to reach the final stage.
The Azkals dominated Bangladesh, 3-0, to show how well they could play even though they had little time to work together and build the right communication. Unbeaten in the group stage they now go to the final stage in March 2012 looking to play and get a result against such highly-ranked teams as North Korea (121), Tajikistan (124) and Turkmenistan (141).
World Cup Qualification
The Azkals then focused their attention to the World Cup Qualification. With no realistic chance of making the 2014 finals, the goal was to get as far as possible, given the Philippines had never even won a match in a World Cup Qualification before. That statistic was broken in emphatic style as after a disappointing first leg against Sri Lanka, a 1-1 draw in Colombo, the Azkals tore apart their opponents’ defense to win 4-0 in the second leg.
The Philippines were drawn against Kuwait in the second round. A powerhouse of Asian football, they are the most successful team ever in the Gulf Cup of Nations and the reigning champions since 2010. Ranked 99th in the world by FIFA they are even higher in ELO rankings, rated at 61st in the world according to probably the more accurate ratings.
The Philippines, therefore, were expected to lose massively to them and after a 3-0 loss in the first leg they led 1-0 going into the second half, eventually losing 2-1, and 5-1 on aggregate.
That may have ended the Azkals’ World Cup Qualification campaign but they certainly grew in popularity from then on. Moreover fans began to realize that losing a game of football didn’t mean the team were bad, they were just playing against another country who is much better rated.
The most important factor in progress is the rate at which a team learns and improves; officially the Philippines are now second to none in that regard.
Long Teng Cup and friendlies
Following the World Cup Qualification the Philippines competed in the Long Teng Cup in Taiwan. Like in the Challenge Cup they first drew Hong Kong (156) and hosts Taiwan (172) and came out in the final game with a 2-0 win over Macau (191) to remain unbeaten since joining last year’s tournament.
Not quite reaching the same heights as previously they still showed some potential and it was Chieffy Caligdong who stole the show finishing top scorer with four goals in three games to clinch the Golden Boot Award. Ian Araneta was the 2010 Golden Boot awardee.
The team had no time to rest, though, as they headed straight to Singapore (136) for a friendly. Losing 2-0, Singapore got their revenge from the stunning 1-1 draw which helped knocked Singapore out in the group stages of the AFC Suzuki Cup. Ranked 30 places above them in the FIFA rankings, the Azkals didn’t really get going in the game and only had one good chance to score throughout 90 minutes.
However, just four days later they were playing at home against Nepal (135), who are ranked one place higher than Singapore and will also be participating in the final stage of the 2012 Challenge Cup in March
In front of the Philippine fans at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, the Azkals destroyed Nepal, 4-0, capping the year by showing their true potential. The cliff-hanger, however, will be how much better can the team be once Stephan Schrock and Angel Guirado return after injuries had kept them both out of the games against Singapore and Nepal.
Always evolving, the team have seen players who grew up in Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, the United States and other nations join the ranks of the Azkals. Most promising, however, is how these players are now filtering into the UFL with Jason Sabio, Nate Burkey and Lexton Moy joining Kaya; Angel Guirado joining Global; and the Younghusband brothers joining the Hartmann siblings at Loyola.
With TV investment the domestic league is growing more professional and this will help local talent develop to supply the National team a host of players.
With talk of stadiums and growing infrastructure to support the demand coming from the growing number of football fans, the Philippines could soon see the UFL become the Philippines’ P-League, to compare with Singapore’s S-League, the J-League of Japan or the Vietnam’s V-League.
Next for the Azkals
The future looks bright for the Azkals, who still have a lot of room for improvement. With manager Dan Palami and coach Michael Weiss always looking to help the squad develop they may very well keep climbing the rankings and be the most improved nation in 2012.
The next competitive international games for the Azkals will be the Challenge Cup in March.
Split into two groups of four teams the Challenge Cup will provide great competition for the Philippines to build on this success. Until then, the Under 23s will be competing in the Southeast Asian Games starting November 3.
The Under-23 squad will include the likes of recent additions Jeff Christiaens, goalkeeper Roland Müller and Jinggoy Valmayor, who recently scored the first hat-trick of the UFL Cup, alongside regulars Simon Greatwich, Jason De Jong and Manny Ott.
The Azkals continue to get better and with the right domestic infrastructure and experience for younger players they can only keep progressing. For the senior players, international football may have ended for 2011 but they’ve gone straight back into action in the UFL Cup.
With free entrance at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, fans can see their favorite Azkals alongside the up and coming youth players as Philippine football looks better than ever. Published in GMA News