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Down but not out: U23 Azkals backtrack on Asian Cup thrashing

Despite an underwhelming Asian Cup stint, the U23 Azkals aim to further strengthen the team.

It is no secret that performing at international tournaments is one of the greatest career goals an athlete could achieve. Adding a global pandemic into the mix, the challenge to attain such a goal exponentially scales to greater heights—attributed to the fact that the health crisis limits training and competition altogether.

The (U23) Philippine Azkals set forth on their journey to vie for an Asian Cup appearance last October 25, gathering a mix of professional and homegrown collegiate players from across the globe.  Among the homegrown talents are DLSU Green Booter Enrico Mangaoang and U23 Azkals’ goalkeeper coach Noel Marcaida. Both reflecting on their experiences in the Singapore tourney, Mangaoang and Marcaida share lessons from training together and plans for themselves and for the Azkals.

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Talent is not everything

The younger Azkals squad began preparing its roster from early September until the first week of October in anticipation of flying out to Qatar, where they trained together with international players. According to Mangaoang, the two-month training period was up to par with what they are used to but was “not the most ideal.” “But given the current circumstances [with] COVID-19 [and] with having to bring in players from abroad, I think it was okay,” he furthers.

However, the transition from online to in-person training made it difficult to adjust their bodies to the condition fit for physical practice. “Usually, when we had [face-to-face training], we didn’t have our online sessions. We’d get to train with clubs or our school, and when we get called up to the national team, obviously, we’re all fit to play,” the Lasallian goalkeeper shares. This time, what he points out as the main difference is athletes do not get to train prior to such a huge competition.

Aside from match fitness, Mangaoang stresses that chemistry-building was also one of the main challenges that the team encountered, “The more difficult part was getting everyone to blend together.”

Echoing the Green Booter’s sentiments on the team’s gelling, Marcaida chimes in, “There are a lot of things that need to be done and it’ll [take] time, patience, and sacrifices to establish the chemistry the team needs.”

Aiming for the goal

Heading into the qualifying tournament, the Azkals had to face a tough group composed of successful footballing nations, specifically South Korea, Singapore, and Timor-Leste. In addition, following relative success in their friendlies against the U23 Yemen national team and a top Qatari club, expectations for the Azkals were high. Marcaida explains, “With how the team performed in the friendly games, the expectation was…to at least win two games out of three, and to qualify [for] the next round.”

Moreover, with a newly built roster filled with talent, fans expressed their excitement and showed eagerness for the team to succeed. “The team we built was really strong…tons of people [were] posting about it,” Mangaoang adds.

Even with the positive outlook set for the team, Mangaoang also had personal expectations to meet. “The goalkeeper coach that I have been training with [in] the past two years [amid] the pandemic [happens] to be my goalkeeper coach in the national team,” he reveals. This put him in a position to hold himself to a standard of play he knows he is and should be capable of.

David and Goliath

When the team arrived in Singapore, the biggest hurdle in the competition came in the form of South Korea—the defending Asian Cup champions. Although definitely a massive roadblock for the Azkals, playing against and sharing the field with the title defenders and undeniably one of the best football teams worldwide was also an amazing opportunity.

Mangaoang recalls the team’s chances at holding South Korea to a 0-0 draw—before ultimately bowing down to the superior squad, 3-0, “[South] Korea was great. Seeing [them] play and given the [limited training] time that we had, I feel like [we weren’t prepared] enough.” The Green-and-White athlete furthers, “[Maybe] if we were just a bit fitter and a bit sharper, we could have held [South] Korea.”

Even if Mangaong was not able to play, he knew that this opportunity does not come around very often. As he watched from the bench, he soaked up as much knowledge as he could and had a takeaway that him suiting up for the national team was “a good experience overall.”

Despite showing flashes of potential against more competitive squads, the Azkals went on to absorb tough losses to both Singapore and Timor-Leste, rendering the team scoreless and winless throughout the Asian Cup. Mangaoang vents out his frustration, but eventually realizes that the team must improve for future international matches, “Obviously, it’s very disappointing…If we all just move on and learn from what happened, I think it will be much better preparation for the next tournament.”

The road ahead

Addressing the concern with the ongoing health crisis, both Mangaoang and Marcaida agree that the set restrictions continue to hinder player development, especially of the youth. Stressing how this setup impedes an athlete’s overall growth, the Green Booter states, “[Youth training is] the most crucial stage when you’re trying to develop, and that’s what we’re missing [right now].”

“There is only one way to go—to go up and be better,” Marcaida furthers. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all plans—and sports activities—were affected. Regardless, both impart that this situation still taught them valuable lessons they take with them to this day.

After playing for the national team, Mangaoang keeps in mind the importance of learning to stay fit and sharp, both physically and mentally. For Marcaida, meanwhile, he will continue coaching—handling both online sessions and personal training—although with restrictions to abide by government-mandated protocols. In terms of the Azkals, the coach mentions that the team will be training early next year in preparation for the Southeast Asian Games, which will begin in May.

Despite failing to live up to expectations, the Azkals have enough opportunities to regain their footing, to sharpen their skills, and to develop stronger team chemistry—showing the football world that the Philippines is mightily capable of rising to the top.  

By Ysa Bakabak

By Red Bernal

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