THE Philippine men’s football team departed for Manila on Thursday and left its Singapore sorrows behind, looking forward to the next big tournament where they look forward to making history — the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup next year.
The Azkals fell short in their bid to make a first-ever trip to the Finals of the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup following a 1-0 loss to Singapore in the second leg of the semifinals, and by the same score on aggregate, at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday.
Azkals coach Michael Weiss, though, is sticking to the positives, saying their performance in Southeast Asia’s premier football competition was nothing short of remarkable as they made it to the Final Four for the second successive time.
“Overall we think it was a good achievement,” the German mentor said. “Hopefully we could build on this experience and prepare a stronger team for the Challenge Cup.”
But unlike in the Suzuki Cup two years ago when the Azkals’ unprecedented semifinal finish sparked the renaissance of the sport in the country, expectations were higher this year, especially with overseas-based Filipino-foreign stalwarts Jerry Lucena, Dennis Cagara, Paul Mulders, and Angel Guirado in the fold.
Doubts surfaced when the Azkals lost to host Thailand, 1-2, in the tournament opener in Bangkok, but these were soon doused after the Filipinos bounced back in their final two games of the group stage, beating Vietnam, 1-0, and scoring a 2-0 triumph over Myanmar to march to the semifinals anew.
The Azkals entered the first leg of the Final Four as the favorites, not only because they faced a squad they had beaten twice in friendlies in the last three months, but also because they were playing a home game for the first time.
The Filipino booters, however, failed to live up to expectations as they settled for a scoreless draw against the Singaporeans at the Rizal Memorial Stadium last Saturday.
Coming in as the underdogs against the three-time champion Lions on their turf four nights later, the Azkals succumbed to the pressure and surrendered an early goal that eventually led to their downfall.
A couple of questions have been left hanging on how key Azkals that were unavailable for the tournament could have changed the outcome. What if goalkeeping standouts Neil Etherdige and Roland Muller were there to protect the goal and dynamo Stephan Schrock was there to perk up the Azkals in midfield.
But Azkals manager Dan Palami refused to dwell on the 'what ifs.'
“We can focus on the ‘what ifs,’ or we can concentrate on what can be,” Palami posted on his Twitter account. “More pages in history yet to be written.”
“The Azkals will be back,” the businessman from Tacloban added.
They now set their sights on the Challenge Cup qualifiers which the country will be hosting in March.
The Azkals are bracketed with 2012 losing finalist Turkmenistan, along with Cambodia, and Brunei in the tournament for emerging Asian nations, which stakes a spot in the 2015 Asian Cup.
“To achieve that, we have to work hard especially on the offensive side, to get stronger, to try to get more ideas up front and to be more resilient and physically stronger,” Weiss said.