It was not the result that everyone wanted but the Azkals’ elimination may have served as a way to bring everyone back to the ground.
The Philippine Sports Stadium was left stunned when the full-time whistle was blown last Friday. November 25, 2016 will be etched into the minds of Philippine football fans as the day the Philippine Men’s National football team bowed out of the AFF Suzuki Cup group stage for the first time in six years. Perhaps it will be more painful to remember because the Philippines hosted the group stage this year.
At full-time, Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang had just one word for the fans in the stadium:
And he truly was apologetic. Thailand had arguably given the Philippines the chance to advance by fielding their second stringers for the match. However, the Azkals failed to convert all their chances and in the 81st minute, Sarawut Masuk broke the hearts of Filipino fans with a winner.
Coach Thomas Dooley was left to rue about the forgettable campaign. If the Philippines had won at least one game instead of drawing 2, they would have advanced to the semifinals.
“We would have liked to go to the next round,” said Dooley. “It’s disappointing but we have to move on.”
Indonesia, who defeated Singapore with a 2-1 come from behind win in Rizal Memorial Stadium, claimed the second semifinal slot at the Azkals’ expense.
Now where does the Philippine team go from here? There are now several questions up in the air.
For a team that had so much promise, the Suzuki Cup exit proved to be a massive disappointment especially as the country was hosting the tournament for the first time. From what could have been a tournament to remember, the campaign became a tournament of what ifs.
What if Neil Etheridge, Daisuke Sato, and Javier Patino were all available during the Suzuki Cup, would it have been a better showing for the Azkals?
Perhaps. But knowing that the Suzuki Cup always falls outside the FIFA international match window, team management could have put more time and effort to secure these players for the tournament. Or, they could have adjusted earlier knowing full well that there really was a huge possibility that the overseas-based players would not be released by their clubs.
Another factor to consider was losing Simone Rota and Patrick Reichelt to injuries. The two injured players, who were part of the 2014 campaign, could have helped the team during the tournament. The absence of these key players left Dooley to field players in unusual positions.
The next edition of the Suzuki Cup will be in two years time, hopefully there will be better communication between the national team and all the clubs concerned both here and abroad.
Still, the 23-man Philippine squad showed some grit during the 2-2 fight back against Indonesia and even in the loss to Thailand.
“The players played with heart and they played what they could as long as their legs kept moving,” said Dooley after the match with Thailand. “They tried to do everything but it is what it is.”
What if the Philippine Sports Stadium was packed to the rafters?
The attendance at the Philippine Sports Stadium were extremely disappointing. With a seating capacity of 25,000, the highest attended match in the Suzuki Cup at the stadium was only 4,300. In contrast, co-hosts Myanmar enjoyed full support in the group stage with attendances averaging almost 30,000 people across all their three match dates.
Both coach Thomas Dooley and the players have asked fans to go out to the Stadium way before the tournament started. But those words seemingly fell on deaf ears and fans were probably not too keen about trekking to the Stadium which is located beyond the outskirts of Manila.
Truth be told, going to the Philippine Sports Stadium is no easy task especially because of the lack of public transport. The Philippine Football Federation made the effort to provide shuttles for the fans, but it was not enough to bring enough warm bodies to the stadium.
One positive takeaway from the fans attendance was the undying support showed by the Ultras Filipinas. The group shouted their hearts out in support of the team, their voices reverberating throughout the stadium and creating an intimidating atmosphere despite the dismal attendance numbers.
What if “that” substitution never happened?
With less than 15 minutes left to salvage a win, Dooley made a sub that arguably decided the Azkals’ campaign. Kevin Ingreso came on for the 17-year-old Marco Casambre, perhaps hoping of shoring up the defense late in the match. That plan ultimately backfired as Thailand scored on the break with nine minutes left from time.
Dooley thought the tactic would work, opting for speed instead of stability in defense. “We needed more speed in defense, that’s why I put (Kevin) in. That was the plan,” the head coach explained after the match.
However, that substitution might not have decided the match had the Philippines converted any of their chances. The Azkals had 12 shots with seven on target. Had any of those seven shots gone in, it could have been a different story altogether.
“We created couple of chances, we had good chances,” added Dooley. “We could have won it in the first half but it is what it is, they have very good players.”
What is next for the Azkals?
After every campaign, the question usually asked is, what’s next? It will be a good four months before the Philippines returns to action on the international stage. The AFC Asian Cup 2019 Qualifiers begin on March 2017.
The next four months will be crucial for Dooley as the Philippines will be matched up against stiff opposition in the qualifiers.
“(We need to) do the right thing to prepare for the Asian Cup and we need to plan for it, like a four-week camp and constant training sessions.” Dooley said when asked about Asian Cup Qualifiers preparations. “It’s something we have to be careful to prepare.”
Captain Phil Younghusband also shared his thoughts moving forward:
“The progression of football has been there and not qualifying to the semifinals is a disappointment, but we still have high expectations because we have good players and we know their quality (moving forward),” Azkals skipper said. “We’ve got (enough) time to look at the games and where we need to learn and improve. The (AFC Asian Cup) Qualifiers will be more difficult because we will be playing countries from all over Asia.”
This Suzuki Cup was the last edition where there will be a host nation. From 2018, the Suzuki Cup will still follow the group stage format, but it will be played home-and-away. The change in format means that while the Philippines will still have the chance to play the group stage matches on home soil, it will not be known how many matches will be hosted in the Philippines until the seeding in the draw.
At the end of the day, the Suzuki Cup elimination may just be the lesson the team and Philippine football fans needed to remember exactly how far they still need to go. For the past six years, Philippine football has dared to chase its dreams. Now, it is time to face reality. — CAL