MANILA, Philippines – The tension in the room was palpable as Philippine national football team coach Thomas Dooley and team manager Dan Palami entered the media room at the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) office at a quarter past 3 to address the press on Thursday, August 7.
PFF general secretary Edwin Gastanes laid out the rules beforehand: Questions about the upcoming Peace Cup and Asian Football Federation Suzuki Cup tournaments will be addressed first prior to discussing “some other matters which you may wish to talk about.”
After 20 minutes of inquiries about the tournaments which will be contested in the coming months, “the big elephant in the room,” as reporter Chiqui Roa Puno referred to it, was finally acknowledged – the withdrawal of team staples Stephan Schrock, Dennis Cagara, and Neil Etheridge, the Fil-Europeans who subsequently took to social media to criticize head coach Thomas Dooley over their diminished roles with the team.
Schrock and Cagara, members of the team since 2011, both said that Dooley was the reason they were leaving the squad, adding they would only rejoin the team if Dooley was replaced. Etheridge, the Filipino-British goalkeeper who joined the team in 2008, said, “Never think I have felt so disrespected in my life,” after being excluded from September’s Peace Cup roster.
Schrock alleged that Dooley was against using Europe-based Filipinos for the Azkals, stirring up once again the age-old debate of what place Fil-foreigners had in Philippine sports.
A revolt, as news wire agency Agence France-Presse described it, had been boiling for some time. As behind-the-scenes events played out in a very public manner, the former US team captain set out to do damage control – and take a few shots of his own – in his first major crisis since taking over the team in January. (RELATED: Why the Azkals are upset with team management)
Dooley, who had flashed his trademark smile from the outset, turned grim as he peered at his notes to read a prepared statement that would vent all of the emotions and thoughts he had held in since returning from the Suzuki Cup draw in Vietnam.
“I was surprised and I’m also prepared,” opened Dooley. Recalling how he arrived in the US from Germany speaking little English before rising to become the US team’s captain, he worked to dispel claims that he was biased against Fil-foreign players.
“My mission here was to develop a team, develop young players here in the Philippines and bring the Philippine-based players closer to the international players. That’s what we did in the last couple of months.
“That doesn’t mean we can eliminate the international players from the team….Without the international players, we cannot survive. As long as we don’t have the strong Filipino league we need to form base players, and as long as we find a player who has some Filipino blood in his body, he will consider to play for this country because he is a Filipino no matter what.”
Dooley then shifted his aim to Schrock, the 27-year-old German Bundesliga veteran considered by many to be the best player of the Azkals. Describing Schrock’s comments as “unacceptable, unprofessional, selfish,” Dooley claimed that the rift began when Schrock was substituted out in the Challenge Cup game against Turkmenistan.
“The PFF are not a pick-up club or a pick-up organization or a chicken farm as Stephan was releasing in the social media,” said Dooley, who claims Schrock was only “70%” for the Challenge Cup due to injuries. “Sometimes the best player who is selfish and puts himself in front of the organization and the team will have a problem with any team.
“He’s not the best player – he can only play two positions, center forward and maybe number 10. All the other positions that he plays, he has to be tactically good and he’s limited tactically. That’s why he can’t make it in the Bundesliga because it’s about tactics. With us he played on the wings, he played on the midfield, he doesn’t hold his position; he doesn’t play well there.”
Next on Dooley’s list was Etheridge, the 24-year-old goalkeeper who has capped 43 times for the Azkals since joining the team in 2008. Etheridge, who had played for Fulham FC’s senior team in the UEFA Europa League, joined the squad after being convinced by former Chelsea teammates, the Younghusband brothers.
Dooley said that he didn’t feel compelled to invite Etheridge from England as he’d only be the third goalkeeper behind Roland Mueller of Swiss club Servette FC and Patrick Deyto of the United Football League’s Global FC, which won the recently concluded domestic Charity Cup title.
Dooley said he believed Etheridge arrived at May’s Challenge Cup with a pre-existing injury after having to apply ice to his knees from day one. (Etheridge contends via Twitter that it was his quadriceps that were being treated). Dooley said Etheridge came to him and told him he couldn’t continue in the tournament, thrusting Muller into the starting spot for the team’s second game against Laos, which the Azkals won 2-nil.
“Neil is talking about disrespect on my end. I think it’s disrespectful to use social media to make negative statements like he did,” said Dooley. “It costs up to thousands of dollars to fly a player in and he would be only the third goalkeeper.”
Etheridge, who didn’t respond to a request for comment at time of print, took to Twitter to contest claims that Dooley had spoken with his old Fulham coach who had said that Etheridge still lacked in experience, while also giving reassurance about his health.
“Just so you all know my quad is good thank you. I have been training now with a very good level team here for 5 weeks now and fully fit,” he said.
Lastly, Dooley spoke on Cagara, 29, the Danish-Filipino veteran of Bundesliga and Danish Superliga. Cagara had recently told football journalist Bob Guerrero that Dooley wasn’t “being honest” when he was left off the Peace Cup roster after he returned to his club team Lyngby FC.
“Dennis, it’s the same thing. He doesn’t want to play for me anymore because I treated him wrong. I wasn’t honest? I was honest right from the beginning,” said Dooley. “In 2007 to 2010 he was a great player when he played in the Bundesliga. I did my research, he did a good job there. Then he got injured, injured and injured, and he dropped down a little bit.
“If you bring Dennis in after he was injured, [he] doesn’t have a club right now, I don’t know if he trains,” said Dooley, who would said Daisuke Sato and perhaps Jeffrey Christiaens are ahead of Cagara at left back.
“It would be the same situation, do we spend thousands of dollars to bring somebody in that we know isn’t going to start?
“Let him find a team, let him find something, let him get into shape because some of the media was saying too he’s a superstar in Lyngby. They don’t want him anymore. He couldn’t find another team. He’s a great guy, I like him, but it’s about performance. Not what they did 5 years ago for the national team. We want to win, we want to continue to develop something here in the Philippines.”
‘I don’t have to’
One common thread among all of the players was their complaint that Dooley had not communicated with them in advance to discuss why they weren’t being played.
Dooley responded by saying he didn’t owe them that.
“I don’t have to call any player up and tell him he’s not invited or he’s invited. They will find out early enough if they are invited or not. Players who aren’t performing well or have a [lack of] experience might be let on and if they have a problem with that, they should call me and ask ‘Coach, why I’m not there? What do I need to do to get back in?’
“If it would be somebody like Rob [Gier], Roland, Jerry [Lucena] or Paul [Mulders], they play experienced and they are way more experienced and play in the league over there in high levels, then maybe I could. I should, but I don’t have to.”
Dooley allowed that he should’ve reached out to one player on not playing him during the Challenge Cup. Chris Greatwich, the Filipino-British 10-year Azkals vet who now leads the UFL squad Kaya FC, had scored the go-ahead goal in the 104th minute against host nation the Maldives, earning the Philippines its first ever spot in a FIFA-sanctioned final.
He didn’t see action in the final against Palestine, which the Philippines lost 1-nil.
“The only one that I really should’ve talked to was Christopher Greatwich. I don’t have to, but I was thinking after the game that I should’ve brought him in. I thought bringing in OJ [Porteria] instead of Chris was like, he’s a little guy, he’s quick, he’s fast, he can trouble somebody, They have big guys in the back, maybe he can get a free kick, a penalty or something and we can win. But after the game I was thinking I should’ve called Chris in with his experience and scoring the goal in the semifinal.”
‘No place on that team anymore’
Palami, who has worked with the Azkals organization since 2010, backed up Dooley’s assertion that the rifts were due to “playing time” but spoke with less finality in discussing the futures of the players.
“An open dialogue is always there, the parties are emotional,” said Palami. “Of course when it comes to these issues, everybody is affected. Coach knows me, they know that I never cease to give players and coaches all the chances in the world to reconcile and settle their differences. I think it’s important that we are able to do that and more so continue to move forward whether eventually they’ll play for the national team or not is a choice between them.”
Regarding Schrock, Dooley said: “If you have a player like him, he destroys the team. Nobody would believe me anymore, nobody would listen to me anymore because he would be waiting for the next moment to go after me.” Dooley said that Schrock could return to the team with an apology but would have to start from square one on the bench.
Both Schrock and Cagara have posted messages on social media voicing their desire to return to the national team some day.
“I will miss the team & fans for a while but I’ll be back again to honor the flag!,” tweeted Cagara, while Schrock included in his Facebook post: “I’m still one of you, & i’m proud to be one of u!I wish u all the best, for the football and for the team!! I hope i will give my comeback one day!!”
I will miss the team & fans for a while but I'll be back again to honor the flag! #somethingsneedtochangefirst pic.twitter.com/zV7pzrmu5V— Dennis Mengoy Cagara (@dmengoy) August 6, 2014
Regardless of whose side you put greater stock in, Palami summarized the duty that all who wear the Azkals jersey share both on the pitch and off it.
“The bigger obligation to me is not to the players, not to the coaches, it’s to the Filipino people.” – Rappler.com with reports from Jaelle Nevin Reyes
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