PHILIPPINE football may have come a long way, but it turned out it is still far from where it had hoped to be at this juncture in its pursuit of glory.
The Azkals found that out after suffering their latest defeat, on home soil yet, that ended its string of Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup semifinal appearances.
It was Thailand that gave the Azkals a stinging reality check after dealing them a disappointing 1-0 defeat on the final day of the group stage on Friday night at the Philippine Sports Stadium.
Once regarded as the whipping boys of Southeast Asia, the Filipinos showed the latest highlight of their progress by managing to stay toe to toe against a regional powerhouse in the Thais for the most part of the match.
The Azkals, however, still failed to unlock the defense of a visiting side that didn’t even field its best squad, having already booked a ticket to the semifinals.
The struggle could be partly attributed to the Filipinos’ stature. For the second straight edition of the region’s biggest football tournament, they came in as the highest-ranked team.
Shouldering far less expectations and pressure back then, the Filipinos would sneak in goals by relying mostly on long balls on offense while staying deep on defense to produce results.
But it’s hardly enough now when there’s a continued influx of talented overseas-based players who have allowed them to play a more team-oriented style, often starting their buildup from the backline.
Reaching this level of football is one thing. Succeeding in it is a different story, they have realized.
“The Azkals are no longer underdogs and therefore can no longer surprise opponents like they used to,” said former Philippine coach Simon McMenemy, who worked as a TV analyst for the Suzuki Cup.
The British coach was there at the start of the Azkals’ rise to prominence, at the helm when the Filipinos scored a historic 2-0 victory against Vietnam at the opponent’s turf in Hanoi in the 2010 edition of the Suzuki Cup that sparked the football renaissance in the country.
And everyone knows that since then, opponents have taken notice.
“They’re a good team,” Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang said of the Philippines through an interpreter. “They just had more pressure because they needed three points to advance.”
After settling for draws in the first two matches, the Azkals were definitely eager to reward the home crowd with their first win.
“The motivation was enough to win the game,” Azkals coach Thomas Dooley said. “We had it in our hands to go to the next round, had a couple of days to train (to) have maybe two more games.”
“I said if we could make it to the next round, we will have a good chance to make it to the finals, but first step’s first: we had to win this game and it didn’t happen,” he added.
It turned out the Azkals were all bark.
There were ominous signs that the Filipinos’ campaign would end unpleasantly as preparations for the country’s maiden hosting of the tournament’s group stage left much to be desired, resulting in a poor turnout of supporters at the venue.
That left the Azkals without the home support they badly needed.
“We don’t have an advantage in the fans, in the stadium,” Dooley said after the scoreless draw against Singapore in an opening match that drew just over 4,000 in attendance, already the highest in the three days. “It’s a stadium where we played maybe just one time.”
“When you play in Thailand and they have sixty thousand people or Singapore or Indonesia, it’s a big difference,” he added.
The Azkals were also missing a handful of players in injured Simone Rota, who could’ve given the makeshift backline a huge boost, and Javier Patiño and Daisuke Sato, whose mother clubs declined to release them.
That left Phil Younghusband, Stephan Schrock, and the rest of the holdovers carrying most of the load while playing in unfamiliar positions.
“I always wish we were complete,” Younghusband said. “We needed every player available and every player can do something. It’s always disappointing when someone can’t make it or miss someone for some reason. But hopefully, every player can be available.”
Now, the Azkals have no choice but to move on and set their sights on an even higher level of competition – the Asian Cup qualifying campaign in March.
“We need to do the right things to prepare for the Asian Cup,” Dooley said, stressing the need for a four-week camp. “It’s something we have to be careful, don’t give players too much time to rest. We need to have a good preparation.”