Only seven months ago, no self-respecting local football fan would dare associate the Philippine men’s national football team, the Azkals, with the prestigious FIFA World Cup. Stuck in the quagmire of Filipinos’ indifference to the sport, it seemed the only cups the Philippine footballers would be lifting would be the protective ones of their jockstraps.
Fast forward to June 29, 2011 at the Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo. The very same Azkals, now with the FIFA World Cup logo emblazoned on their sleeves, are primed and ready to embark on a long and arduous journey to the World Cup Finals in 2014.
The Azkals will not just participate in the World Cup qualifying rounds for the first time in 10 years, but the team will trot out of the bowels of the stadium as favorites to advance against an unfancied Sri Lanka side.
The team shouldn’t take the Brave Reds of Sri Lanka lightly, however; after all, dismissing Sri Lanka as only a cricket country is similar to dismissing the Philippines only as a basketball country.
Interestingly, Sri Lankans regard football as “the poor man’s game,” as parents and teachers encourage children to play the “highbred” sports of cricket, golf, and tennis instead. It’s a bizarro case from the Philippines, where football is often mistakenly referred to as a rich man’s game.
Sri Lankan football officials announced the final composition of its national team only last June 20, an intriguing development considering ten days of preparation for a World Cup qualifying match does not make for an ideal buildup.
Sri Lanka Football Federation (FFSL) media and communications director Lukmal John Perera said that the delay in the formation of the team was due to a “talent-hunting exercise” that the football body undertook in the Northern Province and Eastern Province in the country. Sri Lanka had been wracked by a civil war that ended in 2009, and the FFSL wanted to bring in talented players from these area for tryouts, explaining the delay in team selection.
In April 2010, the FFSL suspended five players for match-fixing, including Sri Lanka’s all-time leading scorer Kasun Jayasuriya and starting goalkeeper Viraj Asanka. Perera confirmed that none of the suspended men will be playing for the Brave Reds against the Azkals.
All in all, it is fair to say that the current state of Sri Lankan football will not exactly leave opposing footballers quaking in their boots.
In stark contrast, the Azkals have left no stone unturned in the build-up for these qualifiers. The team has been bundled away to training camps from Cebu to Germany for over a month now, while taking on numerous friendly matches to fine-tune strategy and develop match fitness.
For the Azkals, the game on Wednesday represents first true test for what team manager Dan Palami calls his “dream team.” Observers say that this is the most talented Azkals team ever to step on to the pitch, and it would take a very brave soul to disagree.
There is quality in every position, from the goalkeeper to the strikers, and it is down to Coach Michael Weiss to make the correct tactics and strategies against Sri Lanka.
Filipino-German newcomer Stephan Schrock has looked as good as advertised, even if he is not playing in his usual right back position. His performances for the Azkals during the tune-up games have been worthy of praise and most fans are eagerly anticipating his debut for the team. Schrock will most likely be deployed as a defensive midfielder in the prolonged absence of Jerry Lucena, due to injury.
Scoring goals was previously an area of concern for the Azkals. With the addition of Paul Mulders, Nate Burkey, Misagh Bahadoran, Ricardo Becite to the lineup, that problem would seem to be behind us now.
But the growing vulnerability of the Azkals’ defense has become an increasing worry for Filipino fans. While Neil Etheridge has been a rock for the Azkals since the 2010 Suzuki Cup, the recent attacking style of play employed by the team, coupled with some horrendous defending by the midfielders, has led to the goalkeeper conceding an unusually high number of goals as of late. Against FC Ingolstadt in Germany, Etheridge committed a sliced clearance that led to an own goal, something that will do his confidence no good. German commentators covering the game were not impressed, remarking: “The goalkeeper, who is playing in England, was really bad.”
The team’s lack of defensive personnel has put a strain on Etheridge at the goal. Only Schrock has been added to the Azkals’ list of defenders, and even he is at his best as a defender when going forward. Jason Sabio has been deputized at central defense and right back and, one assist in Panaad against Mongolia aside, he has struggled with his performances. The return of Ray Jonsson would have been a massive boost to the defense, as it would allow the versatile Roel Gener to come off the bench if necessary, but Azkals team manager Dan Palami announced that the Filipino-Icelandic defender would not be able to join the team in Colombo.
With the advantage of playing at home for the second leg, the Azkals would be keen to secure a good result to bring home to Manila. A healthy dose of away goals most certainly would not hurt our chances of progressing. If the Azkals can take care of business in Colombo, as it should, the second game in Rizal should only be a formality and a coming out party for the city of Manila as an international football venue.
Sri Lanka coach Jang Jung has vowed to give the Azkals a “torrid time” for the clash in Colombo. Jang, who played mostly as a defender during his football career, could only have meant one thing: Sri Lanka will want to slow down the pace of the game, keep its defenses tight, and fancy its chances against the Azkals on the counter-attack.
In short, the Azkals must expect a big Sri Lankan team bus parked at the goal. The Philippine team would be wise to play patient and probing football, quiet in the belief that ultimately, goals will come and quality will see it through to the next round.
A typical journey from Manila, Philippines to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would take two stopovers, with a total travel time of around 26 hours. For the Azkals, it passes through a more gruelling and treacherous route, which first entails a stopover at Colombo, Sri Lanka and hopefully, Kuwait City.
Confucius says: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” All factors point to one thing: The Azkals are now ready to take that first step in Sri Lanka.