Azkals face toughest challenge in AFC Challenge Cup

Mia Domingo
The Azkals' quest for victory begins March 9 as they compete in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup

ALL OUT SUPPORT. The Kaholeros came united to cheer on the Azkals in their match against Malaysia. February 29, 2012. Emil Sarmiento.

MANILA, Philippines – The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup is here — and it is the toughest challenge of the men’s Philippine football team yet.

The team, popularly known as the Azkals, rose to stardom after an impressive run in the 2010 Asian Football Federation Suzuki Cup where they barreled through the group stage undefeated, and accomplished one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history after toppling defending champions Vietnam.

Since then, the Philippines has been bathed in football fever.

The Azkals were welcomed home from that tournament by adoring Filipino fans, who have since followed the team’s matches — and have eagerly anticipated the AFC Challenge Cup.

The day has arrived.

While the Philippines participated in the tournament’s group stage the year it started, this is the first time the Azkals have qualified for the prestigious competition. Games played in the tournament affect world rankings significantly.

The international competition that kicks off Friday, March 9, started in 2006 and takes place every two years. Though it caters primarily to emerging nations under the AFC, other high-caliber Asian teams have been known to participate in the tournament — and it is no different this year.

Underdogs
 
All but one of the teams the Azkals are facing in the first round are ranked higher than the Philippines in FIFA’s world rankings. The Azkals currently sits on the 156th spot.

The Azkals will have to face the defending champion for their first game in the Challenge Cup in Nepal on March 9. The mighty North Korea team — which is ranked number 111 in the world — claimed the AFC Challenge Cup crown in 2010 over Turkmenistan.

PROTECTING THE GOAL. Juan Luis Guirado, James Younghusband, Angel Guirado and Denis Wolf build a wall to ward off a free kick. February 29, 2012. Emil Sarmiento.

The team will then face India on Sunday, March 11, and Tajikistan on Tuesday, March 13. The teams are ranked 158th and 145th respectively. Tajikistan won the crown in 2006, while India took it home in 2008.

North Korea is one of the 15 developed associations, as classified by the AFC, while India and Tajikistan are in the developing associations category.

The Philippines meanwhile is one of the 17 teams classified as emerging associations, the bottom category which includes countries that need time to develop their football.
 
Optimistic coach
 
The Azkals may be the obvious underdogs, but the dream of victory has never been more alive.

Coach Hans Michael Weiss, who has been guiding the squad for over a year, told Rappler that with the exceptional showing that the Azkals showcased against Malaysia, he is positive they can duplicate, if not surpass the high-intensity game in the Challenge Cup.

MAN ON GOAL. Neil Etheridge's presence is felt on defense when he plays for the Azkals, deflecting even the most dangerous shots on goal. February 29, 2012. Emil Sarmiento.

Despite the 1-1 draw against the Tigers, he believes that the squad is mentally and physically ready for the upcoming tournament.
 
Weiss emphasized that the focus is on consistency.

If not for that last minute mental collapse on the Azkals’ part, the Tigers would not have scored in injury time in their match Wednesday, February 29.

All eyes on Korea

The Azkals know that the main focus is to get past North Korea. Doing so will provide the team with enough drive and urgency to beat the other two teams.
 
With basically the same lineup he used versus Malaysia, Weiss plans to shape the lineup according to necessary adjustments, such as increased physicality in case the need arises.
 
His tough soldiers in Jason De Jong, Angel Guirado, and Misagh Bahadoran can get the job done with regards to that aspect.
 
Even with the non-participation of Dennis Wolf due to commitment conflicts, the Azkals enter the competition looking formidable after an impressive draw against the Suzuki Cup champions.

Wolf scored the only goal of the Philippines in their match against the Malaysia Tigers.
 
Adjustments
 
Despite the removal of some vital pieces from the Azkals, Fulham FC’s Neil Etheridge and homegrown talent Chieffy Caligdong have been cleared to play and join the rest of the Azkals in the Challenge Cup journey.

AZKALS IMPROVEMENT. The Azkals' draw with the tough Malaysian team is a sign of huge improvement on their part. February 29, 2012. Emil Sarmiento.

Etheridge was given the green light by his mother ball club Fulham while Caligdong, after being sidelined for a month due to a leg injury he incurred in the United Football League, has fully recovered. Defender Rob Gier, who pulled a hamstring in the first few minutes of the Dream Cup last December, will now be in full throttle with the squad as well in Nepal.
 
Paul Mulders, who plays for a Dutch football club, will also be available for the National Team in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The line-up is listed below:

The Philippine Team roster
 
1)    Neil Etheridge
2)    Eduard Sacapano
3)    Paolo Pascual
4)    Rob Gier
5)    Juan Luis Guirado
6)    Paul Mulders
7)    Lexton Moy
8)    Jason Sabio
9)    Roel Gener
10) James Younghusband
11) Misagh Bahadoran
12) Phil Younghusband
13) Angel Guirado
14) Jason De Jong
15) Nestor Margase
16) Marwin Angeles
17) Ray Jonsson
18) Nate Burkey
19) Dennis Cagara
20) Roxy Dorlas
21) Chieffy Caligdong
22) Carly de Murga
23) Ian Araneta

Overpowering controversy

As if the Philippines’ participation in the upcoming Challenge Cup isn’t a story in itself, the Azkals are in the spotlight for yet another reason.

The public has, unfortunately, been more focused on the investigation regarding the sexual harassment complaint of former Philippine Olympic Committee President Cristy Ramos. Ramos has accused Azkal players Lexton Moy and Angel Guirado of disrespecting her before the Malaysia-Philippines international friendly, wherein she played the role of FIFA Match Commissioner.

Her complaint has been sent to the disciplinary committee of the AFC.
 
James Younghusband, who is currently wearing the Captain armband in lieu of Aly Borromeo, was also mentioned on the complaint for not reprimanding Moy and Guirado for their behavior. Borromeo is currently sidelined due to an ACL injury.

Through Twitter, Younghusband assured fans that the team remains focused on the goal despite the controversy plaguing the team at home.

“Preparation in Nepal for AFC Challenge Cup has been going really well so far. Shame there is people back home trying to bring football down,” he wrote on March 5.

Spirits seemed to have risen over the past days however, as seen in his most recent tweet.

“Been looking forward to this day for a long time. Thank you for all the good luck messages guys,” he tweeted hours before the first match.

Let the games begin. – Rappler.com