Months after the 2018 FIFA World Cup, 2019 wastes no time bringing about another international football competition run by the Asian Football Confederation, the AFC Asian Cup. Unlike the World Cup, the Philippines will be taking part for the very first time, duking it out for the Asian title. This no doubt begs the question of how the Azkals will fare in their maiden competition. Topping their group in the third round of qualifications, spirits will no doubt be riding high going into the tournament. But taking into consideration the level of the competition they will be up against, their new coach, and other factors, how deep of a run can the team considerably make?
The Azkals start off in Group C, a very difficult group, being pit against the likes of South Korea, China, and Kyrgyzstan. Of the four teams in the group, the Philippines has the lowest current FIFA ranking of 116th, indicative of the uphill battle that may be ahead of them. The favorites to top the group are far and away South Korea, who were the only ones in the group and one of five teams in the tournament to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup. Many may also remember them by their 2-0 victory over Germany in the competition, who were, at the time, the holders of the world champion title. And while the Philippines is not necessarily the worst team in the tournament, there aren’t too many willing to bank on our chances of making it, especially not with the caliber of opposition the Azkals will have to best over the course of three group games in order to make it to the knockout rounds. South Korea will be a challenging contender, so perhaps the best the Azkals can hope for is to finish second, which means getting results against China and Kyrgyzstan and hoping that good fortune falls their way.
Should the Philippines make it out of their group, they’ll only find that the list of difficult opposition increases. Notable contenders from other groups in the tournament are Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Australia, most of which are predicted favorites to make it to the knockout rounds. Many would tout these nations to be the ones to win it all, and it’s difficult to contest that stand. However, if the Philippines can make it out of their group, they have every chance of going all the way. The format of a cup competition makes it so that teams that may not be as favored have the opportunity to make a mark on the tournament, as nowhere else could a performance in a single match cause such a big swing. Again, the key, of course, is to make it out of the group—should the Azkals do that, anything could happen.
A notable player-to-watch from the Philippine-based team is Neil Etheridge, the goalkeeper for Cardiff City in the English Premier League. Though admittedly, Cardiff hasn’t been the hottest team compared to the big six, Etheridge’s key role between the posts is evident in his 19 clean sheets during the promotional 2017/18 Championships that helped his then team, the Bluebirds, secure their current 2018/19 spot in this top league. The Premier League is still home to upper echelon footballers—many of whom had seen play during the recent World Cup—so gaining valuable experience saving shots against world-class strikers just might translate to the goalie delivering much promise in the Asian cup scene.
More familiar names include the Younghusband brothers, Phil and James, who play forward and midfield, respectively. The duo are mainstays in the Azkals’ current roster, especially team captain and the nation’s top scorer, Phil, but they are not the team’s sole stars. Stephan Schröck has remained ever present in the national team starting lineup and continues to be one of the side’s best players. In Etheridge’s place, Michael Falkesgaard has done a decent job in between the sticks. Pivotal focal points shifted from game to game as other figures—including Patrick Strauss who made his debut during the recent AFF Suzuki Cup games—stepped up and held their own against formidable Southeast Asian competition.
The Philippine team’s sloppy wins against Singapore and Timor-Leste in the Suzuki Cup may not instantly inspire hope for our chances at the Asian Cup. However, referencing the matchup against the Suzuki Cup title holders Thailand can give us a better idea of the team’s potential high points. The team displayed quick transitions with Schröck and Patrick Reichelt maneuvering the flanks, coupled with sound defense especially from Alvaro Silva that halted multiple possessions from the opposition. Good fluidity in the formation was achieved through swift follow-ups and repositioning during transitions; defenders like Martin Steuble quickly moved up to support the offense while midfielders contributed key touches to press the ball forward. The final 1-1 score, courtesy of Jovin Bedic’s late equalizer, fails to fully capture the quality of gameplay that earned the Azkals the draw and that could have very well bumped the team to a win. In the grander scheme of things, going three games unbeaten in a quality competition like the Suzuki Cup is nothing to scoff at, and there are many positives to be taken away from the games we’ve seen the team play as of late.
The Azkals have shown they can swing from shaky starts to high-octane performances. Though getting past the group stage in the Asian cup will require much more of the latter, alongside staying consistent throughout the entire 90-minute affair. Indeed, the team has shown a firm grasp of the fundamentals—at their best, they know how to create space and make plays to give themselves good chances. If they can keep up the tempo with confident yet well-timed aggression, it then becomes a matter of capitalizing and finishing, converting shots on target into the back of the net.
Having their new coach Sven-Göran Eriksson take over the reins of the team has, without a doubt, had quite the effect on the Philippine Azkals. Though oftentimes, one of the instant aftermaths of the entrance of a new coach in a team is a sense of discord between players and the newly introduced authority, such is not the case with the Azkals. In fact, the Swedish coach, known for having trained the English teams that played in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, seems to have sparked a fresh drive to win in this year’s team. The arrival of a spearheader like Eriksson just might be the dawn of a new day—a new era in the Philippine football scene.
If this year’s upset-laden World Cup is any indication, this upcoming international tournament may just become very interesting very quickly. The cards could drily fall the way a sports analyst or data-driven football audience may predict it to go, but for the football fan who’s willing to wager on his home country, the Azkals might yet have something to prove, and their recent developments may finally be indicative of a team that’s gradually growing stronger and building up to truly having a fighting chance.
The Philippine Azkals might have a few new changes to get used to, but considering they’ve adapted the way they have, embodying the resilience of the country they represent on the field, these changes just might be more of a breakthrough than a set-back. Despite the odds that critics say are or are not in their favor, the Azkals seem to be hell-bent on deciding on their own fate. After all, as every footballer knows, the game is never over until it’s over.