After a historical World Cup qualification, the Philippine Women’s National Football Team dominated the recently concluded ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship, as the Filipinas were crowned champions for the first time in the tournament’s run.
Looking back at their historic AFF stint, the Philippines’ triumph is beyond the actual result of winning the championship trophy. It took years of dedication and preparation for the Filipinas to cement themselves as queens of football in the ASEAN.
Following this tremendous feat, football has indeed experienced another breakthrough.
“I hope we were able to show the country that there are other sports other than volleyball and basketball that are worth watching,” DLSU Lady Booter and national team midfielder Anicka Castañeda says, talking about the victory’s impact on Philippine football.
Hard work makes the dream work
Similar to garnering success in any sport, having the right mindset, getting in the competition to reach their goal, and playing their best during the competition make for an effective formula for greatness. Every time the Filipinas stepped on the pitch, they armed themselves by having enough preparation; this contributed to how the players were able to push until the final match of the tournament. But as with anything, the team also faced struggles along the way. On top of the training and practice games, together with conditioning, weightlifting, and team meetings, the Filipinas had to deal with fatigue they accumulated from the games they played every other day.
However, being the Filipinas that they are, they never gave up. Youth national team coach and former Filipinas team captain Marielle Benitez-Javellana also cites the team’s “quality friendlies” coming into the tournament, together with the coaching staff’s efforts to produce quality on the pitch. She furthers, “The mindset of the team going into the tournament was more than just wanting to win [the championship] but also to prepare for the upcoming Women’s World Cup.”
Besides having the luxury of a deep bench, the Filipinas’ solid defense was key to building their confidence throughout the whole competition, especially with the leadership of veterans such as Olivia McDaniel and Hali Long.
“You have all these experienced players coming into the team and I think that helps bring up the quality of the lineup.” Benitez-Javellana expresses.
The experience that players brought to the tournament also stemmed from—getting exposure from their respective professional clubs, along with international friendlies against Ireland and Bosnia-Herzegovina. “We lost to Ireland, 1-0, but finished the camp strong with two wins against Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Castañeda shares.
Although the Filipinas came into the tournament with confidence, they were not favorites to win it all—especially against perennial champions and seasoned Asian football squads like Thailand and Vietnam. However, their biggest challenge of winning was not from the strength of the opponents they faced, but rather the compact schedule of the matches. Midfielder Jaclyn Sawicki says, “[The schedule] was unheard of at an international level. No matter your fitness level, it just wasn’t an appropriate amount of recovery time.”
Despite these unprecedented conditions, the Filipinas nearly went unbeaten in the group stage, with the lone stain in their record being a 1-0 defeat against Thailand. Although the Philippines fell short to the reigning champions earlier in the cup, the ladies emphatically avenged their loss in the final with a 3-0 victory. Benitez-Javellana explains that while there was not much difference between the two matches in terms of the Filipinas’ execution, it was the squad showing stronger resilience at the back and being clinical on the attack that propelled them to victory in the final.
Additionally, Sawicki also expresses that the prior loss contributed to their 3-0 win in the final because they were then able to study the Thai opposition’s vulnerabilities, as well as their own—preparing a game plan that propelled them to victory in their second encounter.
Winning the hearts of Filipino fans, it was evident that the nation started to show additional support for the Filipinas because as the wins piled up, the Rizal Memorial Stadium stands slowly filled with more and more adoring local fans hoping to witness history throughout the tournament.
“Playing in front of the home crowd was special and something I know all of us are going to cherish for the rest of our lives,” Sawicki gleefully elaborates, talking about the impact of the support from loyal fans.
After powering through all the hurdles, Castañeda expresses what the win meant for her and the country, “In terms of my career, I think it’s a bonus to be able to say I was part of the team that won a championship.”
Conquering the world stage
After the Filipinas successfully made a mark among Asia’s best footballing nations, the squad is far from finished as their biggest competition to date is still to come: the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In the football world, there is no bigger stage than the World Cup. Held every four years, the tournament is where the top talents from around the world take up not just their flag’s colors, but also their nation’s hopes and dreams. Javellana remarks, “It’s a dream come true for any football fan to see their country in the World Cup…It’s something exciting to see, whether we do well or not.”
In terms of gearing up for the tournament that features competitive countries worldwide, Sawicki discloses that the team “will do whatever [they] can to prepare for [the World Cup].” Individually, as the Canada-native has already had an impact on the pitch for the Filipinas, she stays eager to prove herself ahead of the tournament.
While the team’s historic World Cup berth is indeed grounds for celebration, midfield maestro Sawicki thinks that there is still more work to be done for the sport. “If we don’t want it to be our last, greater investment is needed to really build the foundation for the program for our following generation. Let this just be the start for the country,” she shares.
Sawicki furthers that while the team’s AFF triumph is a “major highlight” in her career and is something she’ll remember for the rest of her life, she hopes to see that the feat leaves a lasting impact within the nation. She projects, “Not only does [winning the tournament] potentially inspire the young footballers in the Philippines, but hopefully it forces the federation to start thinking of long-term steps.”
After conquering the ASEAN region, all eyes are set on July 20 to August 20 next year for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, as the Filipinas have a chance to prove that the nation can go head-to-head with the world’s footballing giants.
This article has been edited at 9 pm of August 31, 2022 to correctly spell Anicka Castañeda’s name.