The Philippine Women’s National Team were down by a single goal against Bahrain heading into the final ten minutes. The Filipinas had been having an imposing run in tournament, drubbing all their opponents so far.
Each match had its heroines: Eva Madarang scored the first goal in the first three games. First timers Irish Navaja and Mary Cristine Duran scored a goal each in their national team debuts. In the match against Iraq, the Filipinas scored all four goals in the first half. 17-year-old Anicka Castañeda scored twice against Tajikistan. Hali Long netted a hat-trick of headers against the same opposition en route to an 8-0 win.
But in the match versus Bahrain, midfielder SaraCastañeda shone the brightest. The De La Salle midfielder scored the deciding goal in the 82nd minute to send the Philippines back to the AFC Women’s Cup for the first time since 2003, and with a game to spare.
Castañeda was still over the moon when asked about the goal and the game. It was the midfielder’s fourth goal of the qualifiers having scored in every single game.
“I’m very grateful! I am still speechless that we actually made it to the next round,” said the soft spoken Castañeda. “Hopefully we will be able to prepare so we can do well for Jordan.”
Both captain Patrice Impelido and goalkeeper Inna Palacios hailed Castaneda and the whole team’s effort to put the Filipinas back in the game after Bahrain took the lead in the 55th minute from Noora Al-Dossary.
“Even though Bahrain were able to score first we never gave up,” Impelido said. “We kept fighting. We kept our composure and worked as a team, and that’s how Sara was able to score that equalizer.”
“That goal happened way too fast. We were trying to organize the defensive line and then Bahrain did a quick play. We weren’t able to react fast enough,” recalled Palacios. “I’m not surprised that Sara was able to score. She has a great eye and good anticipation of the game. (She was) just in the right place at the right time and we badly needed that equalizer so we all celebrated when she scored.”
The qualification to the Women’s Asian Cup also extinguished the ghosts of 2013. Previously, the Philippines failed to qualify for the tournament proper after a 1-0 loss to Thailand. Both Impelido and Palacios were part of that squad.
Impelido thought of the qualification to the final round as “a roller-coaster ride of emotions.”
“I was talking with Inna (Palacios) before the game and saying that ‘we’re almost there.’ One more game. Only 90 minutes,” said Impelido. “When that final whistle blew, we did it! We’re going to Jordan! We hugged and cried tears of joy.”
Palacios, on the other hand, felt that the qualification was the fruit of the sacrifices she and the team had to make in order to reach the Asian Cup.
“This journey is probably the hardest so far because of all our other commitments like UAAP, school, injuries, plus we didn’t have enough time for preparation, which makes it special, and difficult. All the effort, time, double trainings, sleepless nights for school, just all the sacrifices we made were worth it,” explained Palacios. “The feeling of being able to do something you thought you couldn’t do is just so rewarding. I can’t find the right words to describe how I feel. I just know that I’m beyond blessed and thankful for this team and everyone behind us, who’s been with us through thick and thin.”
PFF Women’s Committee Chairperson and team manager Lalaine Sarmiento echoed the players’ words.
“We had to either win or draw to a point that we were praying, cheering and motivating the players on the field,” Sarmiento said. “It’s hard to explain the exact feeling but its a feeling of excitement, fulfillment, and that we still need to be focused and composed.”
With the participants for next year’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup already set, Sarmiento is aware that the team should start preparing ahead of time. The Philippines will be up against tournament hosts Jordan, and Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam in the Asian Cup.
“The PFF and the Women’s department will prepare for the journey towards the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2018,” added Sarmiento.
The AFC Women’s Asian Cup serves as the qualifiers for the FIFA Women’s World Cup which will be held in France in 2019. The top five teams at the end of the Women’s Asian Cup will qualify for the Women’s World Cup.
In light of the Filipinas’ success, PFF General Secretary Atty. Edwin Gastanes has already pinned his hopes that the Women’s Team will be allowed to compete in the upcoming South East Asian Games. The SEA Games will be held in Malaysia this coming August and the Filipinas would make the tournament part of their preparation for the Women’s Asian Cup.
“It’s a young and fearless team,” said Gastanes on the Filipinas. “The PFF hopes that the POC-PSC SEA Games 2017 Task Force approve our earlier request to send a women’s football team to the SEA Games this August 2017. Our current women’s football campaign deserves no less.”
What a journey the Filipinas have been on so far, and what a journey it’s going to be yet. — CAL