MANILA, Philippines – Wearing the national colors of one’s country is the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon a footballer. The accomplishments of a football player are celebrated in league play, but it’s in international competition where a player can become a legend.
Which is why when long-time pillars of the Philippine National Football team Stephan Schrock and Dennis Cagara quit the squad abruptly, the public reacted with disbelief. The national team, known affectionately as the Azkals, have burrowed a place in the heart of Filipino sports fans, elevating the sport to new heights with inspiring performances in regional tournaments while rising from a FIFA ranking of 195 in October 2006 to 128 in July 2014.
The fallout began on Monday, August 4, with a post on the official Azkals Facebook announcing that Schrock, the Filipino-German who had been part of the team since 2011, would no longer be a part of the team. Later that day Cagara, a Danish-Filipino who joined the squad the same year, followed suit.
“I wanna be honest to you, cause you deserve the truth. As long as [Coach Thomas Dooley] will lead the team I won’t wear the jersey of Azkals again,” said Schrock on his Facebook page. Similar sentiments were echoed by Cagara on his Twitter account.
One source close to the team, who says team organizers were “doing a disservice to the fans” and that the “fans deserve to know what’s going on,” says that these issues had been “simmering for a while,” and are only becoming manifest now.
“I think there’s been discontent with how things have been run within certain sections of the PFF for some time,” the source says. “Obviously it’s come to a head with players being omitted from the team, players deciding they don’t want to play. But essentially I think it’s the culmination of a lot of factors that have taken place prior to the buildup to the Peace Cup.”
The public got its first inkling of discord on July 31 when Azkals goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, a London-born Filipino who had been a part of the national team since 2008, was not one of the 4 keepers listed on the roster for the Peace Cup, which starts September 1.
Cagara too was left off the team.
“Never think I have felt so disrespected in my life,” tweeted Etheridge before deleting the post.
The source says that the players found out that Schrock and Cagara had left the team through social media, and are often unaware of who will be seeing action until shortly before the games. They’re also not informed of why decisions on which players will play are made and are left only to wonder.
“Individual players have issues with Dooley for whatever reason, not being selected to the squad, not being selected to games. People understandably are going to be unhappy about that; that’s the nature of sport,” said the source.
“I think more so it’s the manner in which it’s been handled – players being left out of teams and not being informed, players not being told why they’re not on the squad.
“The main issue that players have is that coaches make decisions based on who they think is best for a particular game. Obviously some of those decisions were questioned but that’s natural. I think the main problem is there isn’t any reasoning behind his decisions. If someone is left out from the team, why? If you’re an experienced player and you’re just out from the team, it’s like, what’s the reason for it? They deserve an explanation, maybe it’s something they can fix.”
In an interview with German news outlet Nurnberger Zeitung, Schrock voiced his discontent that some of the older players had been displaced in key games. The source says that the team generally shares the same sentiments, as Dooley’s preference to go with younger, less-experienced players in the recent Challenge Cup where the Philippines lost 1-0 on a late goal against Palestine in the Final may have cost them a tournament win and a berth in the 2015 Asian Cup.
“It just started to get to a head because they’re starting to get to a stage where the prizes are really big. They’re not competing for small-time tournaments anymore; they were competing for the Asian Cup, that’s the biggest one you can play in this region. You can’t help but think maybe it’s all those little things that add up over the course of the preparation.”
The source also points to the Philippine Football Federation and their lack of organization for the team’s discontent.
“Then obviously there’s from the administrative side, the organization of things, having to go to endless events, the travel arrangements for the teams when they go abroad. After a while it becomes draining for the players.”
National pride, not financial incentive, is what drives the players to leave their regular duties with clubs in Europe, flying across the world to represent the Philippines.
“I think a lot of the players feel used, like they’re pawns in their little game. It’s hard for the players to feel appreciated when essentially it’s the players who are doing all the work. I think it’s time that players should stand up for their rights and what they believe in, and ultimately that’s what a lot of the players have decided to do.
“I think if things continue the way they are, players will continue to be treated in this manner, there is a possibility that other players will follow suit.”
“The ironic thing is, the players will always pull through. Whatever bullshit that’s off the field, they still do the business on the field. You saw how they performed in the Challenge Cup. They go above and beyond every game 100% and that’s something that perhaps is to their own detriment because you know you can treat them like shit and they’ll still put in the performances.”
Dooley, who is in Hanoi, Vietnam for Tuesday’s AFF Suzuki Cup Draw, has not returned requests for comment though Jaron Genota, a PFF official, tweeted on Monday, July 4 to Azkals team manager Dan Palami: “Congrats on the possible huge savings.”
@dscpalami congratulations on the possible huge savings— Jaron Genota (@jarongenota) August 4, 2014
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.