2015 was a disappointing year for PH football, but not because of the Azkals
As the year comes to a close, the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing among Pinoy football fans is evident. This was a year that could have been really special. Instead, the Philippines is out of the running for the 2018 FIFA World Cup after a pair of gut-wrenching home losses to Uzbekistan and Yemen.
Filipino fans were teased a bit this year. The wins against Bahrain and Yemen to kickstart the qualifying campaign whipped up the Azkals Nation into a lather, jacking up expectations sky-high. Suddenly visions of Russia 3 years hence filled our minds.
But the rest of the qualifying phase proved to be far more sobering. The 5-1 setback in Bulacan and the 1-0 loss to Yemen sandwiched a brave goalless standoff against North Korea in Pyongyang. The Philippines now has only the next stage of the AFC Asian Cup to aim for when they travel to Uzbekistan and host the Koreans in March.
When you see the big picture, the Azkals should feel nothing but pride after what they have accomplished this year. Ten years ago it would be unthinkable for a Philippine team to beat not one, but two Gulf nations in competitive matches, and to draw another Asian nation that recently competed in the World Cup final stage, on the road. All that happened in one calendar year, and it's amazing.
The fact that we started strong but finished the year on the downside should not diminish the achievements of the 2015 Azkals.
Compare the Philippines with the rest of our ASEAN neighbors and you will have a better appreciation of how well we are doing. Thailand is leading the pack atop Group F with four wins and a draw in 5 games. Vietnam are in third place in this group with just one win. The situation is dire for the rest of South East Asia's sides.
Malaysia has been walloped 10-0 and 6-0 by the UAE and Palestine, respectively. They are doing so badly that their own fans disrupted a home game that had to be abandoned. They are second-to-last in their group, with only another ASEAN team, Timor Leste, below them.
Singapore are doing decently in their group in third place, but a pair of home losses last month to Syria and Japan, with one match to play, leave them in a tough spot. Cambodia are in last place in Group E.
In Group G Myanmar and Laos are propping up the table, with the Burmese only being able to take points from the Laotians and vice-versa. Kuwait demolished Myanmar 9-0 last September.
What about Indonesia? The FIFA suspension means they are not participating in World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying.
So we should be happy with what our Azkals did on the pitch in 2015. But that team is only part of the story. In other areas, especially in youth development, we continue to lag behind. Why is this important?
For many of us, the Miracle of Hanoi in 2010 and the rise of the overseas-born Filipino players was meant to raise the performance and profile of the team, stoke interest in the game, lure sponsorship, attract public sector support, and thus help spur development of football here. That is supposed to make for better youth players, teams, leagues, and stronger youth national teams. The foreign-born stars were meant to be a catalyst for the growth of the game. Then down the road our Azkals can slowly transition towards what Gilas is, roughly half overseas-born, half Philippine-born.
The problem is, 5 years after Hanoi, we aren't getting there. The 2015 results of our teams below the Azkals on the pyramid show this in stark relief. These are the youth national sides that are mostly populated by homegrown players.
Over July and August the Philippines joined the AFF (ASEAN) U16 Boys championship in Cambodia. The Pinoys lost every game in the group stage. They started alright with a tough 1-0 loss to the hosts. Then they took an early 1-0 lead against Singapore only to lose 4-1 with two late stoppage-time goals from the young Lions. I was able to catch a bit of this on the live streaming. The boys then lost 3-0 to Myanmar and then 8-2 to Australia.
The U19 national boys team joined both the AFF and AFC (Asian Football Confederation) competitions. In the AFF tilt in August in Laos, the Filipinos again started well, with a 2-1 win over Brunei thanks to a double from Matthew Custodio. But then the boys succumbed 4-1 to Thailand, and 1-0 to Cambodia before falling to the hosts 3-1.
The AFC U19 qualifier was also in Laos in October. The 6-0 thrashings at the hands of Japan and Australia were to be expected. The boys then lost to the hosts Laos 2-1, with Ateneo's highly-rated striker Jarvey Gayoso scoring the goal. Gayoso was unfortunately not able to join the AFF competition. Maybe if he was there for that it could have been a different story.
Last March the Philippines entered Olympic qualifying with a U22 side in Bangkok. (The Olympic Games is a U23 competition, so the teams this year have to be U22.) Unsurprisingly we fell 4-0 to Korea DPR. Then came an inevitable 5-1 mauling to the hosts, with Paolo Salenga's late header serving as a mere consolation. In the final group match, the Philippines leaked three goals in the first 16 minutes against Cambodia. The Khmers took their foot off the gas pedal and the Fitch Arboleda scored late to make it a respectable 3-1 final score.
A somewhat similar team with a few changes represented the country in the SEA Games later in the year in Singapore. Again, a winless slog. A promising 1-0 opening loss to the home side was followed by setbacks to Cambodia, Myanmar, and Indonesia.
If anyone's counting, that is a record of 1-17 in male youth international matches this year.
The women's senior team fared a bit better, beating Malaysia 3-0 but losing to Myanmar and Vietnam 4-1 and 4-0 in the AFF womens championship. The Womens team of FEU played in a competition in Vietnam a few weeks ago and lost heavily to clubs from Myanmar and the host nation before rebounding a bit and going down swinging 2-1 to a Hong Kong ladies squad.
(Incidentally, the FEU men's squad was scheduled to play in an international university football tournament in China but it got canceled.)
Our futsal national team once again was not competitive in the ASEAN championship, losing all 4 outings.
All this makes for depressing reading, but it's important to note that all of these teams had dedicated, motivated players lead by hardworking coaches. We just couldn't make it work. The structure is simply not there yet.
No doubt much has happened since 2010. Teams have been added to both the UAAP and NCAA, the UFL youth league has given tons of kids experience. The Ang Liga preseason university-level competition now has two divisions. The NCAA South tournament affords young players from the south of the metropolis a proper league. There are competitions in Cebu and Davao that are making a difference. But despite all these strides, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Our youth teams deserve all the love, attention, and support that the senior team gets. They will form the backbone of tomorrow'sAzkals. The influx of foreign-born players will continue, but the honing of Filipino born-and-bred players should always be a paramount concern. Fortunately there are signs of hope even in this dismal year.
I, Pagasa FC of Iloilo finished second in the Singa Cup youth competition in the U12 bracket recently. The competition MVP was Khent Valenzuela from Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo.
Global's U12 team was just fielded in the Supermohk Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Bolstered by some I, Pagasa kids, they battled Sepahan of Iran to a 0-0 draw and also held Harundae of Korea to a 2-2 score. They defeated PSW Futera of Thailand 6-2.
Over the weekend I was at a friendly match of the Pilipinas Dragons youth team, which is composed of players from several top footballing schools. They already have a senior team in the Weekend Futbol League and have big plans. They, like the Uygongco family that runs I, Pagasa, are just two of the many private sector groups raising their hands for football.
But having all this talent and harnessing it into winning youth teams will be another matter. Philippine football can achieve. It just takes forward planning, determination, hard work, and cooperation among all the stakeholders. Then both our Azkals, and all the players and teams that toil underneath them, can thrive. Then hopefully, a year like 2015 will become the exception and not the norm. – Rappler.com
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.