Dooley leading Philippines to a bright football future

Ilija Trojanovic

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Dooley leading Philippines to a bright football future
Azkals coach Thomas Dooley has turned around the fortunes of Philippine football, just as he had for the United States years earlier

Football, or soccer as it is known in the United States, is gaining fans by the day, but sports such as baseball or American football still have a larger fan base stateside.  

Similarly, in the Philippines, basketball and boxing arrive before football in the pecking order. With Thomas Dooley – the captain of the USA team at the 1998 FIFA World Cup – now at the helm of the Philippines national football team, the plan is for that to change. 

According to Dooley, interest in football has been brewing for a long time in the United States. Despite not having the numbers other more well-attended sports like baseball, for example, had two decades ago, football was still in existence. 

“It’s easy to explain,” Dooley told in an in-depth interview, “when I came there was a football base there. In ’92 when I came over there were something like 20 million kids playing football. That’s a base you can build on.” 

Dooley the player 

Born to an American father and a German mother, Dooley went stateside after living and playing professional football in Germany in 1992. A friend of Dooley’s introduced him to his girlfriend, who was in Germany as part of an observers group from the US Soccer Federation. When she pointed out that his name did not sound German, she was told that his father was in fact an American. After suggesting that Dooley play for the US team, he accepted. Two years later, he featured in the FIFA World Cup in the team of legendary Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic. 

When the tournament finally started, Dooley and his teammates struggled in their first match against the Swiss at the now disused Silverdome stadium in Pontiac, Michigan. Dooley remembers that “it was so hot, it was like playing in a sauna.” Apart from the heat, Dooley also admitted that if it wasn’t for Milutinovic, it would have been a much harder task. 

With only a handful of players on the USA team plying their trade abroad, this meant the majority of the side Dooley captained in 1998 were just coming out of college, where they played semi-professionally.  

“Only 30% had a professional background, like Earnie Stewart in Holland, Tab Ramos in Spain and John Harkes in England, but we had so many players who just came from college,” Dooley said. Unlike Stewart, Ramos and Harkes, Dooley opted to leave Germany and play in the US for some time before the World Cup, and this was how his relationship with coach Milutinovic strengthened.  

“At the time he was the best coach this team could have had,” Dooley says of his old coach, adding that the way “he spent time and developed these young college players was remarkable.”

Only a day before the opening World Cup match against Switzerland, Dooley recalls how Milutinovic took the entire team to the unlit pitch of the Silverdome and asked the players to gather. The lights suddenly lit the stadium, and a video appeared on a screen where Dooley says: “Bora showed us a motivational speech…and then told us how we will have the advantage the next day because ‘The Swiss don’t like the heat’, but then I thought, wait, I’m from near Switzerland, I won’t like it either!” 

Bora Milutinovic, who has since retired from coaching, also reflected on his relationship with Dooley, who he converted from center half to defensive midfielder. The trailblazing Serb, renowned for miraculously bringing unfashionable teams to the World Cup and taking them to the second round on four successive occasions, said that it was Dooley’s “experience in the Bundesliga, as well as his personality” that made him “a very important part of my team.” 

The USA’s next match in the 1994 World Cup was against Colombia, who narrowly missed out on progressing to the next round in the previous World Cup in Italy. The American hosts, who played in 1990 but hadn’t made it to a World Cup since 1950 before that, were clearly up against the favorites. But it was this match that was the turning point for US football. 

Dooley says his “most memorable moment in football was the win against Colombia,” because it was “this match that made Americans start watching football.” He added that it was “amazing how that change was falling into place when you’re playing exciting football.” 

The USA ended up losing a close encounter against eventual World Cup winners Brazil 1-0 in the Stanford Stadium in San Francisco, but reaching the second round was seen as a major success for the hosts. Dooley also represented his country at the following World Cup in France. 

The game  

Fast-forward almost two decades, and Dooley is now trying for a third time to reach the World Cup, as coach of the Philippines. For over a year now, the American has been revolutionizing Filipino football by installing his philosophy into the way he wants the Azkals to play football. 

Players usually tend to wear one number on the back of their jersey while playing internationally, and for Dooley, at both international and club level he chose a symbolic number 5. He said that “my jersey number 5 was because of the 5 most important things in my life that I built on my own: (1) you have to have a clear goal in life; (2) you have to have a plan; (3) carry out that plan and do what’s written in the plan; (4) believe that whatever is in your plan is achievable, 5) dream for that and fill your dreams with visualizations.” 

With these five pillars, Dooley intends to take the Philippines to boundaries in football the nation has never passed before, and to his credit, the dream has already begun to take on shape for the Asian side.

With two wins in two games in the 2018 World Cup FIFA World Cup Qualifiers for Asia, Dooley led the Philippines, known as the Azkals, to victories against group rivals Bahrain and more recently Yemen. They are now in the top two of their group after the first two rounds of matches. 

With the situation not safe at the moment in Yemen, the latter match was staged in Doha, where the Azkals cruised to a 2-0 victory in front of a wave of loudly cheering, blue-bearing Filipino fans living in Doha.

Thomas Dooley, seen before the Azkals' game against Bahrain, was one of the factors who facilitated the raise in popularity of football stateside. File photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

One fan at the match, Greiza, who has been in Qatar for 10 years and now lives here with his family, said: “we are here as a football club, Pinoy Football Club. We started in 2010 and we became recognized by the Qatar Football Association in 2012. They support us by giving us home and away kits, free registration, and free pitches to train on. We really like life here in Doha, and every time the Azkals come here we are here to support them.” 

Another Azkals fan, Luigi, said that Qatar was pivotal in the growing popularity of football back home, and said he was looking forward to the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar. He said: “In the Philippines we did not know much about football – it’s only basketball, basketball, basketball – but with our club here it is actually known back home. We are also very happy for the World Cup to come back to Asia in 2022.” 

Yemeni fans competed with the Filipinos in terms of noise level, spurring on their team from the East stand of the Qatar Sports Club Stadium. One of their fans, Saleh, was grateful to Qatar for allowing the game to be played in Doha: “First of all, we are grateful to our Qatari brothers for letting us still have the chance to qualify for the World Cup. Of course, these are trying times for Yemen right now, but by the grace of God we will be in stadiums in Qatar come 2022. I think for Yemenis, the World Cup in 2018 is much smaller than the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. I’ve been here for more than 20 years, and as an Arab, I can say the World Cup is coming to my home.” 

The scorer of the Azkals’ opening goal against Yemen was Misagh Bahadoran, an Iranian-Filipino winger. He was also on the score-sheet five days earlier in the 2-1 win against Bahrain. 

(READ: Azkals vs Yemen postgame thoughts: Misagh’s moment)

Bahadoran, however, was not always in Dooley’s plans. Injury and poor performances in training meant that he was benched at times and even missed out on key tournaments. If anything though, the relationship between player and coach exemplifies Dooley’s 5-pillar belief system he sees as the key to success. 

Even Bora Milutinovic praised Dooley in this regard, saying “the man’s character on and off the field makes him a role model for younger players.” But it was Bahadoran’s own words that truly sum up Dooley the man, and Dooley the coach. 

“He is like an old brother and he listens to us. Even when he doesn’t select you in the starting 11 he explains his decision. One of his best qualities is his equal treatment of the entire team, whether you’re in the first 11 or not. That’s really one of his best traits because it brings the best out of the entire team. As a former player he understands completely what we go through and you can go up to him freely. He has created a very competitive environment,” Bahadoran said, who is a qualified dentist but has never taken up the profession because of his success in football.

After two goals in two matches, Bahadoran added that “football has brought the people of Iran and Philippines closer as a result of the goals I scored against Bahrain and Yemen. You now have the peoples of two different countries, completely separated from each other, sharing the same stories through football. Iranian football fans are saying they remember me as a kid playing football in Tehran, and people in Manila are talking about the time we played futsal in university.”

Dooley also has a special connection with Iran, and it came when he was the USA captain at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ in France. For reasons off the pitch, the group stage encounter between the USA and Iran was getting a lot of people talking. The two nations’ cold relations was finally about to be broken when they were set to face off in Lyon. Despite the politically-charged nature of the match, the then USA captain thought otherwise.

“Personally, I had a relationship with Iranians in California, and I knew what kind of people they are. Also, my best friend there is from Iran. Football has nothing to do with politics, and it should be used to unite people,” he said. “After the game I was randomly chosen for the drugs test with Mohammed Khakpour and we exchanged jerseys. Then, four months later, we played together in New York. It was great just to meet those people,” added Dooley. 

Arrival in Qatar

In 2014, Dooley was present in Qatar for a fund-raising match between the Philippines and Nepal that saw crowds fill the stadium and break the Qatar Stars League (QSL) attendance record. He led the Azkals to a resounding 3-0 victory that day, and was nothing short of impressed by what he had to see on each visit to Doha.

“It’s actually the fourth time I’m here in Qatar. Every time I was here I loved it. I studied architecture and all the beautiful buildings are impressive. The cleanliness of the city and the training facilities where we trained and the different stadiums I was given the privilege to see are very beautiful. I think even when you drive anywhere here you see construction everywhere. I think when the World Cup is finally here it will be an outstanding location for the hosting of the World Cup.” 

Reflecting on the World Cup the USA hosted and its ramifications on the sport since, Dooley said that “the US did not have pure football fans, but behind the scenes there was more going on. Following the hosting of the World Cup we now have more football fans in the US and the MLS (Major League Soccer) is getting better and better.”

The American coach and former captain believes that Qatar is in a good place to make the same positive development come 2022. –

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