As the Philippine national men’s football team is set to face regional powerhouses Vietnam and Thailand in the group stages of the 2012 ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup, it would be easy to conclude that the nationals are, once again, underdogs in the tournament.
After all, the Azkals are coming off just their first semifinal stint in history in the 2010 edition of the tournament, paving the way for the skyrocketing popularity of the sport in the country. Vietnam and Thailand, meanwhile, have already won Suzuki Cup titles in the past and have been considered as the top teams in Southeast Asia.
But former national team coach Aris Caslib believes that the underdog tag is a thing of the past for the nationals, saying that the team has vastly improved. In fact, the Azkals have been the busiest team in the region, playing in over 20 competitive matches since their 2010 semifinal run.
“It’s 2012, it’s completely different,” said Caslib, who failed to steer the nationals past the group stages of the 2007 edition of the tournament after failing to win any matches.
Caslib remains confident that the Azkals have an edge against Vietnam after their 2-0 upset two year ago, and Thailand, who the nationals last faced in a 4-0 loss 2007.
Azkals team manager Dan Palami agreed with Caslib, even declaring that the Philippines are now among the favorites to win the title.
“We’re not coming in as a surprise team anymore. We’re coming in as one of the favorites,” Palami said. “Everyone wants to beat us.”
Palami, however, admitted that overcoming this huge challenge won’t be that easy.
“We need to back up our words by complete preparation,” Palami said. “(That’s why the team is having) tough camps, tough games against tough teams.”
Aside from Vietnam and Thailand, the Azkals are also drawn with the top team from the tournament qualifiers in Group A. Meanwhile, Group B features defending champions Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the runner-up of the qualifiers.
Slated from Nov. 24 to Dec. 22, the 2012 Suzuki Cup will be co-hosted by Malaysia and Thailand and will be aired on AKTV.