SEA Games football post-mortem and Azkals-Bahrain preview
The U23 Azkals concluded their SEA Games campaign with a fourth loss in as many games on Tuesday, June 9, stumbling to Indonesia 2-0. The Indonesian wunderkind, Ivan Dimas Darmono, scored an early double to put the Pinoys in a hole early on.
But a decent night from the defense and goalkeeper Jun Badelic, plus the best midfield performance of the tournament from the Philippines meant there would be no more further goals. The Philippines even created quite a few of their own chances from Jinggoy Valmayor, Daniel Gadia, Neil Dorimon, and others.
The side started well with the 1-0 loss to Singapore and ended decently with a gutsy display in the second half against Indonesia, but those games bookended a 5-1 loss to Myanmar and a 3-1 setback to Cambodia.
There will be plenty of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing in the football community about this campaign. A lot of it will center on the non-inclusion of some very eligible current or former Azkals to this campaign, like OJ Porteria, Curt Dizon, Amani Aguinaldo, Manny Ott, Mark Hartmann, Dennis Villanueva, Kenshiro Daniels, and Daisuke Sato. They were all 23 years old or younger and could have helped the team. Instead most are in Thomas Dooley's squad for the two upcoming World Cup qualifiers. In the end, Porteria and Dizon didn't even make the Azkals squad, and that probably rankles Azkals fans the most. These two would have been good to go for the SEA Games if everything had been planned early and coordinated.
But therein lies the problem. This is the Philippines, and we traditionally suck at forward planning and working together.
This SEA Games/World Cup qualifier conflict was a bump on the road. We didn't do enough to swerve around it.
To be fair, it was always going to be a tough ask. We needed to get the UAAP, the NCAA, all their schools, the Philippine Olympic Committee, the Philippine Sports Committee, the Philippine Football Federation, The UFL and all its clubs, the Azkals management, and the U23 team management all in one page. But it didn't happen.
The POC asked for a long list of 50 players for the U23 squad months ago. At some point that list was shorn to 30, then eventually the final cut to 20. There were deadlines that had to be met all the way, since the POC or PSC needs to sort out accreditation, lodging, plane tickets, and other issues for the contingent.
PFF Secretary-General Ed Gastanes told me that it was a photo finish getting the players all together to make the last two deadlines, because the U23 management was having a hell of a time determining which players would be available.
It was also problematic with the clubs, since some were loathe to release players since there were originally supposed to be UFL games during the SEA Games, but those games were rescheduled and there was no club play at all during the SEA Games. One team representative told me the rescheduling was done too late.
What SHOULD have happened? In my opinion, as early as last year, the stake holders should have all gotten together. U23 team management could have asked the senior Azkals to sacrifice two or maybe even 3 players unlikely to start matches, and commit them to the U23 team from the start. Then early on, there would have been a clear division of labor. Those players could then rejoin the senior team for subsequent World Cup matches.
For me, players like Ott and Sato, almost certain starters for the senior team, could have stayed with the Azkals. But Porteria, Dizon, Daniels, Villanueva, and maybe even Aguinaldo, unlikely starters all, could have been assigned to the younger side early on. It would have been good for their development, too, to log plenty of minutes in the SEA Games.
Had Dizon or Daniels been in the side, for sure we could have been much more threatening in attack. We scored only twice in Singapore. Had Nick O'Donnell been there, perhaps the Myanmar drubbing could have been lessened.
(In fairness to the Azkals though, perhaps the participation of incoming players like Stephan Palla, Luke Woodland, Iain Ramsay, and Kevin Ingreso was a bit in the air for the last few months, hence possibly an insistence to keep all hands on the senior Azkals' deck as late as possible. )
So there, yes, some Azkals could have been useful in Singapore. But what is not being talked about at all are the very good NON-AZKALS who didn't make this side for various reasons.
Jhan Jhan Melliza of Green Archers finished his UAAP career with a championship with FEU. He has a sledgehammer of a left foot and is a serial goalscorer in the UFL. The Ilonggo was at the final U23 practice the night before the side left for Singapore, but paperwork issues nixed his participation.
Jim Ashley Flores was part of San Beda's NCAA-title winning team. He went with the team to their Australia camp and scored three goals in their friendlies. But the speedy winger was also excluded for administrative reasons.
Same story with Matthew Asong and Raffy Cabug, two other Bedan defenders who were also at the last Manila practice. Asong is a rangy defender who did well in the AFC U22 qualifiers in Thailand. Cabug has lots of UFL experience with Pachanga.
It's my understanding that U23 coach Marlon Maro wanted to bring all of these guys to Singapore. But he couldn't, because these players weren't on this list or that list or a deadline was missed or a requirement wasn't accomplished.
There's more. Eric Ben Giganto is another FEU product who scored more goals than any other player in Season 77. (Only a red card denied him the Golden Boot Award as per UAAP rules). He is quick, a terrific finisher, and is great on the ball.
How does the best striker of arguably the best collegiate league not make the SEA Games squad? He tells me he came to train with the team late, perhaps because of school, and was therefore not included in the lineup.
Some players complained about not knowing about tryouts. One told me his collegiate coach did not know about them. It didn't help that the coach was changed just before the SEA Games, with Maro coming in to replace Jim Fraser who had handled the team for about a year.
On the flip side, one source told me that some players didn't submit requirements, so they couldn't be included. One very good player in the UAAP who could have been considered for this team never had a passport.
So what are the lessons to be learned? For me, we all have to be better. We all must coordinate and plan things months, even a year ahead. All the different components of the structure could have thought outside of their individual silos and contributed more to strengthen the team. That includes the individual players. If you want to make a national team, get yourself a passport and fulfill the requirements when asked.
I refuse to put blame on one person or entity, like the fans who are calling for Maro's head at the moment. Maro did make some quirky decisions from out point of view but he wasn't dealt the best of hands with this lineup. In fairness to him, one of his adjustments, to put Shirmar Felongco in the center of the pitch against Myanmar, resulted in the highlight of the campaign, this dazzling opening strike, a truly superb piece of individual skill.
There is silver lining to all of this. 70% of this team is still eligible to play in the next SEA Games in 2017 in Malaysia. Sato, Aguinaldo, Porteria, and Dizon are also still in the mix two years from now.
Dominic Del Rosario, just 18, can play in the next two.
A bunch of players now have additional precious international exposure. In fact, Maro played every single player on his 20-man roster over the four games.
Gastanes tells me that he is confident the POC and PSC will still field a football team in the next SEA Games in spite of this desultory record. He says the POC classifies football as a “developmental sport” as opposed to a sure medal hope.
So it's time to look forward to 2017 with optimism. This SEA Games just might be a prelude for something bigger.
Azkals preview: hope and confidence are growing
Thursday's World Cup qualifier is the biggest game in Philippine football for a while. It will set the tone for the qualifying campaign and could determine how much fan support and sponsor support we get going forward.
There is a lot of pressure, but the more I know about the team and the closer we get to Thursday, the more I think we could get a win.
Fact: of the 21 overseas-born and raised players on this Azkals team, 6 have played for the youth national teams of the country of their birth, namely Neil Etheridge, Stephane Palla, Simone Rota, Luke Woodland, Stefan Schrock, and Jerry Lucena.
We have players playing or recently playing in the Chinese top tier, English League One, Bundesliga Two, the Australian A-League, the Danish Superliga, and the Austrian Bundesliga. These are all extremely competitive leagues that should be similar in standard or even better than the Bahrain league.
This well and truly is the best collection of Azkals ever brought together for an international competition.
The big question is how well Dooley can whip them into a cohesive unit for Thursday. We don't want to hear Julie Andrews' voice singing “Getting To Know You” in our head while we see them play.
Bahrain will be a difficult foe, but a 1-1 friendly draw at Thailand last week might not be that great for their confidence. Perhaps it's time for another South East Asian team to get a piece of them this week. – Rappler.com
Philippines vs Bahrain
Thursday, June 11, 8pm kickoff
Philippine Sports Stadium, Bocaue, Bulacan
LIVE on ABS-CBN Sports+Action and Balls Channel HD (167 on Sky Cable)
Tickets and bus transfers available at Ticketworld outlets.
Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.