Is there a centerback crisis with the Azkals?

Bob Guerrero
Is there a centerback crisis with the Azkals?
As FIFA World Cup qualifiers near, the Philippines' lack of quality, young central defenders remains a gaping hole in the Azkals lineup

We have a top-drawer striker in Phil Younghusband. Three great keepers with Patrick Deyto, Roland Muller and Neil Etheridge. Wizardly mids like Martin Steuble and Manny Ott. And the defensive flanks are shored up by the tandem of Simone Rota and Daisuke Sato.  

And yet one of the most important and sensitive positions on the football field appears to be an area of concern for our national team.  

A central defender needs speed, smarts, and ideally size as well to handle high balls. Also known as centerbacks or center halves, central defenders should also be vocal leaders who help command the team from their position in front of the goalkeeper. No wonder many team captains come from the ranks of the centerbacks.  

Juani Guirado and Rob Gier have been the senior players at the position in recent years. Their leadership, experience, and skill have helped the Azkals win a ton of games. But they, and many of the players who could fill their shoes, are getting on in years. In today’s speed-oriented game, that is far from a good development.  

Guirado is 35, Gier is 34. Aly Borromeo, a Miracle in Hanoi hero, is turning 32 in June. Borromeo wasn’t taken to last year’s Suzuki Cup, and with ACL injuries on both knees, his NT future is uncertain. In the Kaya – Ceres game over the weekend, he was an unused sub for coach Adam Reekie. 

Andrew Santiago of Pachanga Diliman is about Borromeo’s age and was in the national pool during his younger days. Santiago is highly respected and is a very experienced product of the Claret-to-UP-to-Pachanga pipeline. He is also internationally-sized. But Santiago is also aging and is often injured.  

(READ: Green and Gold Glory: Dissecting FEU’s football dominance)

Stallion has a good Filipino centerback who starts regularly, and he is David Basa. The former UST Tiger turns 26 in a few weeks, so he is in the goldilocks zone of being experienced, (having played for the Suzuki Cup qualifying phase in 2010), and also still fairly young. But the national team selectors have ignored Basa since 2010. By default he should be back with the national squad.  

Basa’s teammate at Stallion, Simone Rota, does have experience at CB but it would be tough to take him out of right back, where he has been outstanding at the national level.  

Apart from these guys, plus nineteen-year old phenom Amani Aguinaldo, that’s all we have at centerback for the national team. No, seriously, that’s really it. And that’s a problem.  

There is Toto Gempisaw of Army, (29 years old), and he does have some national team experience. But with the military squad leaking goals left and right these days, it’s hard to recommend him for a call up. 

Pachanga had Filipino–Indonesian Reuben Silitonga alongside Filipino–Emirati Mahmoud Ali at centerback against Manila Jeepney over the weekend. Neither is a natural CB. On the other side of the ball was PJ Fadrigalan, a tough former San Beda player who is undersized internationally and is more suited as a fullback.  

Team Socceroo has Enzo Pinga at centerback when he is healthy but he is still learning the position and is currently injured. 

Ceres has Camelo Tacusalme, Jason Sabio, and Lemuel Unabia, but they don’t get much game time behind Guirado and the towering Kim Sang Min. 

Wanna dig deeper? Philippine Air Force has Jake Hugo and the Leonora brothers, Nicolas and Neckson, plus a thirty-something Joel Ballo-Allo. But since the airmen have taken leave of the UFL, chances for a call-up are remote.  

(READ: AFC Cup: Global show true Pinoy fighting spirit at Pahang)

Amani Aguinaldo, is a great find for the Azkals, but unfortunately we can’t treat him like a Gremlin from the movie of the same name. In that flick, whenever a Gremlin encounters a drop of water, he multiplies. If only it were that easy with centerbacks. 

Aguinaldo has had plenty of experience of late, but he still has plenty to learn, a fact he knows more than anyone.  

Competition sparks growth

Intense competition between a large pool of players at each position is the best way to ensure you will have a quality starting eleven, especially in the event of an injury to a key starter. That unfortunately may not be the case at centerback for the Azkals. Our pool is rather small indeed. 

Former UST Tiger David Basa turns 26 in a few weeks but hasn't been called up for national team duty since 2010. Photo by Bob Guerrero

So yeah, in one of the most vital slots in the team, the Philippines has a terribly shallow bench. It’s like having exactly one young player backing up June Mar Fajardo at the five spot in Gilas. So the question is, how on earth did we get here? 

The UFL allows five foreigners on the field at one time, and teams seem to alway put foreigners in central defense. Why? Because it’s just too easy to find a good, tall, experienced foreigner and slot him in there. Think Loyola’s Joaco Cañas, Global’s Masaki Yanagawa, Kaya’s Masanari Omura, and Ceres’  Kim.   

Finding UFL-caliber homegrown central defenders is only slightly easier than finding unicorns, especially since we have so very few tall players to begin with. Developing CBs is also an arduous and difficult task fraught with danger. Risk-averse coaches are often loath to give youngsters playing time at CB, when an error could easily result in a conceded goal.

So Filipinos hardly get the experience they need at the position, if they are deployed there at all.  

But our country has also gotten unlucky. Some can’t-miss prospects are out of the game.  

Jason Cordova, from Santa Barbara, Iloilo, is 28 years old. He won a UAAP championship with FEU (playing striker, actually) and has caps with the national team as early as 2008, when he was a part of the Challenge Cup qualifying squad. Cordova played for Stallion and Ceres, captaining the busmen to their first national title in 2013. 

Although he was a right back for that title season, Cordova was an exceptional centerback with size, strength, speed and all the intangibles needed in the position. He could also be a bit ornery on the pitch, as some of the best CBs tend to be, like Raymond Tonog, the legendary Air Force and Philippine National team centerback was. 

For some reason, Cordova has stopped playing, and is now an assistant coach for Ceres. He may make a brief unretirement for our planned Iloilo – Negros Occidental game, but he is certainly not UFL-fit at the moment. 

There are others who slipped through the cracks, like two former UP Maroons who have been lost to the world of, um, culinary arts. 

Deo Segunial and Boi Boi Fernandez won UAAP titles with UP. Fernandez played in the 2011 SEA Games. Both are tall and skilled. Segunial suited up in the UFL for Pachanga, Fernandez for GAU. Neither is playing anymore.  

Segunial is gunning for a diploma in Commercial Cooking and Culinary Arts at the First Gourmet Academy. He is taking classes like Food Science and is also working on his knife skills. He just got engaged, and it seems top-level football is part of his past.  

Fernandez hung up his boots after Green Archers United’s 2014 campaign and began running the operations of an outlet of Chefs and Bakers, a baking ingredients and supply distribution company. He is able to keep fit by jogging, but for some reason he says finding a pick up game is difficult, which is strange since he now resides in Iloilo City.  

There is a Filipino-British player named Fred Holtom, who is in his mid-twenties now. He was once part of a Filipino-British team that included former Nomads players Jason Arroyo, Aaron De Rama, and current Loyola Spark Ben Tolete. They all speak highly of Holtom. 

“He is a beast,” says Arroyo.  

“Tall, vocal, English CB,” adds Tolete. “Quick, too.”  

But alas, Holtom, like Fernandez and Segunial, is out of competitive football, working in a day job in England with Fujitsu.  

But there are other overseas-born Pinoys right? Aren’t there any coming in? Well, we did get Alvaro Silva just before the Suzuki Cup. The Fil-Spaniard has experience in the lower tiers of Spanish football and is now playing in Kuwait for Al-Qadsia. Might he be our CB of the future?  

Not really. Silva turns 31 in two weeks. And when I saw him in the friendly against Nepal last year, I recall his first move: running into a Nepalese player when the ball was 20 meters away from both of them. Oh, and he couldn’t get his passport in time for the Suzuki Cup either. I believe that has since been rectified and he could be joining the Middle East camp in a few weeks.  

So yes, out of a diaspora of 10 million Filipinos, we have exactly zero experienced-but-not old CBs coming in.

There is hope for the future. Ian Clarino of UP, Arnel Casil of NU, and DLSU’s Nicko Villacin have great potential. Patxi Santos plays right back for the Maroons but he could be trained to be a CB. FEU has Arjay Joyel and Reymart Cubon. UST’s Ronald Batislaong is promising. San Beda offers Cebuano Neil Dorimon, and a young Fil-Aussie named Josh Grommen is impressing at Loyola. 

But these are still young players who need experience. Hopefully some will get it at the SEA Games and Olympic qualifiers this year. They are probably not quite ready for the senior team just yet.  

And that’s not good, because the big one, FIFA World Cup qualifying, begins in June and runs into 2016. And that is not a time for development and for giving players exposure. It’s a stage where reliable, quality play at centerback will be needed under the biggest pressure imaginable. 

Thomas Dooley told me that he will try to implement a new system this year that is 3-4-3 in attack and 5-4-1 in defense. He has played with three in the back previously in his career, (he is a former centerback), and has always admired the system. 

He says that the dearth of centerbacks is only a contributing factor to this decision. Dooley believes that a surfeit of speedy wing-back-type Pinoys leads him to believe the tactical move might pay dividends. (Think Jeffrey Christiaens and Daisuke Sato, two world-beaters who are both left backs.)  

Perhaps Dooley would need just one pure central defender surrounded by quicker guys who can scamper back and forth up and down the field all day. Since my tactical knowledge is limited, I really can’t say.  

At any rate, the Philippines hurtles towards the World Cup qualifiers with a centerback cupboard that may not be bare, but isn’t exactly full either.  

On Monday Dooley told the media that he is working on roping in striker Iain Ramsay, a Filipino- Australian left-sided midfielder/striker with Melbourne City in the Australian top tier. The coach also mentioned negotiations with two other unnamed players with Filipino heritage about playing for the Philippines.  

Let’s hope that at least one of those prospective Azkals is a centerback in his mid-twenties who is ready to go come June. That could decide whether we prosper or flame out on the road to Russia. –

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.

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