MANILA, Philippines – In the Rappler Talk last Thursday, April 5, Azkals mainstays Phil and James Younghusband dropped by to share their stories of the Philippines' first AFC Asian Cup qualification.
The Philippine Azkals went down to the last stretch of the qualifiers to make the historic berth happen. The team failed to capitalize on the early opportunities as they drew in Yemen and and in Nepal, mostly due to missing their key cogs due to injury.
Although things fell into place starting from the draw until their last game against Tajikistan at home, the Younghusbands stand firm on the fact that it wasn't just luck that brought them to the Asian Cup, but it was a collective effort from the team on and off the field.
"I mean anyone can make any excuse or give any reason. You can say the luck of the draw or we can say we have to travel 25 hours to places. There are a lot of things that people don't know about and behind the scenes, so a lot of the preparation that goes on and off the field that people are unaware of," said Phil.
Phil also encourages fans and supporters to be more positive heading into the Asian Cup, as the progress of the Philippines has been unbelievable. For a country that does not overflow with resources for football, it's already a great achievement to join the ranks of other countries whose number one sport is football.
"I think people have to be more positive too much negativity for me and focus more on the good things and the upside," said Phil.
"You can put it all in perspective and it's amazing that where the Philippines has achieved, we want to be more consistent and continue with success."
2018 AFF Suzuki Cup
The Azkals will be making an appearance in the AFF Suzuki Cup again this year, but with more pressure to prove themselves to the world that they are one of the best teams in Asia. This includes redeeming themselves from the 2016 edition, where they failed to make it past the group stage.
Having experienced the same pressure in the last game against Tajikistan, the Azkals are hopeful that it will give them renewed confidence during the Suzuki Cup.
"Yes, there is pressure but we enjoy pressure and we proved that and the last game. This recent achievement can give us confidence as well going into the Suzuki Cup," said James.
"Beyond this, I want to achieve more, I’m sure Phil wants to achieve more, I’m sure the coach wants to achieve more, I’m sure Dan wants to achieve more, I’m sure the players want to achieve more. We just want to be hungry and what we’re looking for in the Suzuki Cup is at least to get into the final or [become] champions."
According to reports, this edition of the Suzuki Cup will do a home-and-away format starting from the group stages to solve the lopsided attendance issue in the previous years. Instead of playing with two groups of 4 teams each, there will be more games as each group will have 5 teams each.
This will give more chances for Azkals fans to watch games live at home and become the 12th man of the team again.
Phil also noted that this Suzuki Cup would be a good prequel to the Asian Cup as Thailand and Vietnam will also be competing in both tournaments. However, he hopes that new format of the Suzuki Cup not be harmful to the fitness of the players before the Asian Cup.
The Philippines Football League (PFL) is already set to end in August 2018 by loosening up the game schedules to make way from the Suzuki Cup.
"We hope that the scheduling with the domestic league and all the games happening in the Suzuki Cup that it’s not too much before the Asian Cup because we want to be going to the Asian Cup in our best condition possible," said Phil.
Both Phil and James Younghusband also agree with Azkals manager Dan Palami's plans for the rest of the year until the Asian Cup.
The Azkals already proposed plans to bring in new Fil-foreigners who are currently competing Europe such as Raphael Obermair, Gerrit Holtmann and Jesper Nyholm, to name a few.
Being Fil-foreigners themselves, James admits that it has been a long-time issue that majority of the team are not pure-bred Filipinos or are Filipinos residing elswhere in the world. However, the Younghusbands are in support of Fil-foreigners who are wholeheartedly willing to play and contribute to the national team just like them.
"Let’s all be serious here, we’re all Filipinos here in the country and we want to play for the Philippines and we all wanna do well together. I mean like if a player is good enough and he has Filipino blood, they should be playing for the national team and if they could contribute their football skills and help us achieve more things, then let’s do it," said James.
Azkals captain Phil shares the same sentiments, but argues that recruiting Fil-foreigners is a short-term solution in fortifying the squad, while developing football in the Philippines should be a long-term effort.
"It’s important that we make sure the programs are in place and we’re doing the right things and we’re making the right decisions to ensure that players growing up here are getting the right training, getting the right amount of exposure, playing enough football, and doing the right things to make sure that they’ll progress and play for the Azkals, the national team as well," said Phil.
"Rob [Gier] put it in nicely and said 'the blood that flows through the players that grew up here is just as strong as the players who grew up abroad'. So we’re very much Filipino. We grew up with the Filipino values, we may have a different upbringing in football, but that doesn’t make us not Filipino."
The Younghusbands also agree with Palami's intention of providing TV broadcast for PFL and Azkals games, especially through a 'bayanihan' initiative. This is patterned after getting a 3rd party to collect donations from people in any amount.
For James, showing more Philippine football on TV will be able to push the sport to the younger generation, which will spark a development in Philippine football from the grassroots level.
"Getting the funds together to really push the sport and develop it here because we want to develop the sport for the young generation. The young kids who are training right now, and maybe [those] who watched the game against Tajikistan want to achieve more for the Philippines," said James.
Phil validates Palami in the fact that public who will contribute funds to Philippine football in their own way will be able to cherish the sport even more. Aside from the 'bayanihan initiative', Phil encouraged the management to explore all possibilities of promoting the sport in the Philippines.
"I think the best thing to do is to investigate all possibilities, to look into all possibilities in making sure that we have the best exposure, the sport has the most exposure possible and there’s progress," said Phil.
More commonly known as “Bee”, Beatrice is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Phillippine sports governance, national teams, football and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.