By Musong R. Castillo
The Azkals—though not necessarily the same batch that resurrected football in the Philippines—on Tuesday were the first group of Filipinos who arrived in this traffic-infested Indonesian capital for the 26th Southeast Asian Games.
And though finding newfound fame back home because of a series of sterling international performances, this Under-23 squad hopes to break through in these Games. That is to win for the Philippines its first football medal.
The famous Younghusbands, James and Phil, feared scorer Chieffy Caligdong and the indefatigable Aly Borromeo won’t be on this squad, but the Philippines probably has its best shot at going home with a medal.
“It’s doable, definitely,” team manager Dan Palami, the man chiefly responsible for that resurgence, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer moments after touching down after a nearly seven-hour trip from Manila to Singapore to here.
The Philippines’ best football finish in the biennial meet came in 1991, when the country hosted the Games in Manila. That squad went on to make the semifinals only to lose and settle for fourth place.
And if one would talk about the luck of the draw, then the Philippines had seemingly gotten one, and hopes to ride it all the way towards finishing in the money.
Bracketed with Myanmar, Timor-Leste, Laos, Vietnam and Brunei, the Philippines is in what coaching staff calls the “Group of Hope” as the other favorites, counting the host Indonesians, Singapore, Thailand and defending champion Malaysia are in the other. Cambodia is the fifth and last Group A member.
Only two groups make up the elimination round with the top two teams to advance to the crossover Final Four after a single round robin.
The Philippines faces Vietnam for its first match on Thursday.
Given that, the Filipinos, who will be reinforced by a number of Fil-foreign players, will play a total of five games and would need to top their group to draw the lightest possible assignment in the semifinals.
“We should realize that teams like Timor-Leste, Cambodia and Laos have actually built very good youth programs and the products of those programs are playing here,” said Palami.
The Azkals got a massive boost late Tuesday when Fil-German midfielder Manny Ott opted to join the team at the last minute, after earlier ruling himself out as he looks for a new club in Europe.
The Under-23 Azkals next play Timor-Leste on Nov. 7 at the Lebak Bulus Stadium before tangling with the Laotians on the 11th in the same pitch.
The rest of the 512-strong Philippine delegation makes its way to here and main venue Palembang province in the coming days. Published in Inquirer Sports