MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines seems to have hit a wall in the Suzuki Cup. For the fourth time the team stalls in the semifinals, losing 2-1 on Thursday, December 6, for the second leg in a row against Vietnam for a 4-2 aggregate defeat.
There are no shortage of talking points in the aftermath of this bitter loss. But there is hope as well.
The Vietnamese were set up to frustrate us
From the very first whistle, Vietnam poured sand into our gas tank. Their ultra-conservative 5-4-1/ 5-3-2 formation was a virtual fortress around Dang Van Lam's goalmouth. This was a luxury they earned after winning in Panaad 2-1.
It was always going to be difficult to get chances, much less the two goals minimum that we needed. We had exactly one shot on target in the whole contest, James Younghusband's late consolation when the match had been wrapped up. Vietnam's game plan to clog our attacking third while also pressing in other areas of the park left us snookered.
Other tactical notes: I am puzzled by our coaching staff's substitutions, or lack thereof. The team looked tired for much of the game, and yet we only made two subs, James for Carlie de Murga in then 69th and then Jovin Bedic for Kevin Ingreso in the 83rd, after Vietnam had already scored to make it 3-1 on aggregate.
Not only was the squad crying out for fresh legs, but the midfield also desperately needed ideas, having been bogged down in the Vietnamese quicksand all game long. Bedic could have provided both in the absence of an injured Manny Ott. I think the Kaya star should have come on a good 10 minutes earlier, before the goal was scored.
For me it was Stephan Schrock who made most of a difficult situation with two probing balls deep that did not result in goals. He, and centurion James Younghusband, get my nods for Filipino MOTMs.
This loss is a result of structural deficiencies in Pinoy football
We reap what we sow, and right now the Philippines' weaknesses are being laid bare.
Four of our players had to depart from the competition because of club duties. Neil Etheridge, Patrick Strauss, Daisuke Sato, and Stephan Palla. A fifth player, Javi Patiño, was unable to participate because of a calf injury. And even if Buriram let him play during the FIFA window, he would have split after two games.
These 5 players would have made a massive difference had they been on the pitch on Thursday. But we couldn't have them for this game. No thanks to injuries to Michael Falkesgaard and Ott, a threadbare Philippines team had an especially thin bench.
An option for the Azkals would have been to exclude all of these players from selection and pick only the guys available for the whole tournament. That's what Thailand did, leaving out stars Kawin Thamsatchanan, who plays keeper in Belgium, and Japan-based attackers Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda.
But had we followed the lead of the War Elephants, then our team might not have even qualified for the semis. It was a tough call by Azkals management and it is hard to say they made the wrong decision.
For me the way forward is clear: if we want the Azkals to succeed, we should work to support and develop our local league.
The other semifinalists, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, all have robust, multi-tier professional, (or semi-pro at the lower levels), club leagues. These competitions churn out a vast pool of quality players, the very best of which are fed into the national side. This is how Thailand can afford to leave Dangda and company off the team and still contend, because they are so deep.
In contrast, the Philippine-based Azkals are comprised of players from 3 clubs, Ceres, Davao and Kaya. They were in a league of just 6 teams this past year, one of which, JPV Marikina, faces a very uncertain future.
If we let our league disappear then the quality overseas-born Pinoy players will depart to play on other shores. This will make the task of creating a competitive national team even harder, especially since the Suzuki Cup is traditionally not even played on FIFA dates.
I envision a future where a 20-30 team league in the Philippines draws big crowds, is fully sustainable, is on TV attracting sponsors, creates entertaining football, and is a magnet for the best Filipino talent from all around the world. Then creating a strong national team will be easier than ever, FIFA windows be damned.
But this can't happen without fans standing up and being counted at the league level.
More patience than ever will be required
The teeth-gnashing is underway on social media and it's understandable. But Filipino football fans need to understand that our meteoric rise from the wilderness in 2010 to next year's AFC Asian Cup is highly unusual. We must be grateful for what we have, and take our cue from our neighbors.
Indonesia is the best example. The Garudas have never won an AFF Championship. Not when it was called the Tiger Cup, and not now as the AFF Suzuki Cup. They have finished second 5 times, 3 in a row from 2000 to 2004/ 2005. Heartbreak is part and parcel of the Indonesian football DNA.
And yet the fans flock to the games, 80,000 at a time. It was only the non-bearing game against the Azkals that saw poor attendance at home.
Indonesian fans understand that they show up not to see the team win, but to cheer and support their country, win or lose.
Reaching the World Cup or winning the Suzuki is a marathon, not a sprint. Even with the infusion of overseas-born talent, it will be a project that may take decades. Filipino football fans must understand and accept this. Without looking far ahead, we are setting ourselves up for anguish. The process of sorting out our structural issues will take a while.
The youth movement must begin soon after the AFC Asian Cup
The game last Thursday finished with Phil Younghusband, James Younghusband, Martin Steuble, Alvaro Silva, Stephan Schrock, Iain Ramsay, and Patrick Reichelt all on the pitch at the final whistle. Carlie de Murga was subbed out.
Each and every one of these players are in their 30s, with de Murga reaching that milestone just last week.
Whether we like it or not, the conveyor belt must keep on moving, and the future belongs to others.
Going forward the Azkals must rely on the likes of Dylan de Bruycker, Jarvey Gayoso, Paolo Bugas, Daniel Gadia, Paolo Salenga, Ian Clarino, JB Borlongan, King Miyagi, and Marco Casambre. Amani Aguinaldo, who started last Thursday, is also on this list, as is the very unlucky Luke Woodland.
Amin Nazari and Patrick Strauss are also in this cohort, as are Jordan Jarvis, Jhan Jhan Melliza, Fitch Arboleda, Kenshiro Daniels, Hikaru Minegishi, Mike Ott and OJ Porteria.
Players like Daisuke Sato, Manny Ott, Jovin Bedic, Curt Dizon and Kevin Ingreso will need to take leadership roles in the squad.
Might other talented young Pinoys enter the picture? Of course, but it's best if they have a viable league to play in.
This generation must step up in order to keep the goals coming and interest high. The Azkals need new heroes. Many will be on display in the SEA Games next year, which we are hosting.
There is some silver lining in the loss
The Azkals are finished for 2018. And the best thing about it is the 9 extra days of rest for the players before the AFC Asian Cup. It's well-deserved. They have given their all in every match, and we should be immensely thankful. Not a single one of them deserves any of the criticism online. They have sacrificed too much.
It's time to rest, recuperate, and prepare. The challenge of Asia's best is just around the corner. and another chapter in the Azkals story is about to unfold.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.