WITH the recent change in the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup qualifying format, the Philippine men’s football team will now have to go through a different route to get to the showpiece event in the continent.
The Azkals had come so close to reaching the 16-nation 2015 Asian Cup, stumbling at the final hurdle after dropping a heartbreaking 0-1 decision to Palestine in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup final two weeks ago.
With the Philippines classified as an 'emerging' football country, the Challenge Cup had for so long presented the only opportunity for the Azkals to make the Asian Cup.
Now, the AFC has given more opportunities for nations to qualify for the Asian Cup by increasing the number of participating countries from 16 to 24 starting in the 2019 edition.
The governing body has scrapped the Challenge Cup, with all nations now needing to take part in broader qualifiers made up of eight groups with five teams each.
And the path appears tougher for the Azkals, who face the possibility of getting ranged against top-ranked Asian squads like Japan, Australia, and Korea.
Under the new format, there will be eight groups with five teams each, with each team playing eight matches (four home, four away). The top teams in each group and the four best second-placed teams will not only be seeded in the 2019 Asian Cup, but they will also advance to the final qualifier for the Fifa World Cup.
The 12 remaining teams that will complete the new 24-team roster will be determined via another qualifier.
The Philippine Football Federation also expects AFC approval for its proposal alter the format and have the four groups coming from East/Southeast Asia and the other four groups from West/South/Central Asia to ease the travel load for the teams.
“So if we are grouped in the East or Southeast Asia, then it’s better for us because time difference is not a problem, unlike if we are grouped with a country from the West Asia, where the time difference is about seven hours and travel time is about nine hours,” PFF president Nonong Araneta said.
“(Still) it’s definitely not easier,” Azkals midfielder Jason de Jong said. “This (previous format) was a lot easier to qualify for Asian Cup, because you play with lower-ranked countries (in the Challenge Cup). But this is how it is. We have to go the normal qualifiers now and the only thing we can do is prepare as best as we can.”
Azkals manager Dan Palami thinks otherwise.
“I’m actually looking forward to that, because then that allows us to really gauge ourselves in so far as the bigger arena of Asia is concerned. We’ll be grouped against East Asia where there’s Japan, North Korea. But I don’t think it’s something we should be too worried about.”
“What it should do is to inspire us and challenge us, and make us work harder — not just the team, but also the federation,” he added.
“I like it better, the new one, because it allows us to have home games. at any time we’re home, we always stand a good chance,” Palami continued.