Philippine Azkals

Azkals hope to ‘swing a surprise’ as World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers kick off 

Juro Morilla

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Azkals hope to ‘swing a surprise’ as World Cup, Asian Cup qualifiers kick off 

VETERAN PRESENCE. Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge in action for the Philippine Azkals.


Backed by the home crowd, the Philippine Azkals target a sweep of their first two matches in the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 qualifying campaign

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Azkals look to kickstart their second-round campaign in the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 Preliminary Joint Qualifiers on a positive note as they challenge Vietnam on Thursday, November 16, at 7 pm at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

“For us it’s a D-Day as far as the results are concerned of these two games, where we are lucky to have Indonesia and Vietnam on home soil,” said Azkals head coach Hans Michael Weiss ahead of the first of their two home matches in the second round of the joint qualifiers. 

While world No. 94 Vietnam come in as the “heavy favorites,” Weiss said their regional opponents still need to “really invest everything” to grab a crucial away win as the Vietnamese are reportedly concerned with playing on the stadium’s artificial turf. 

 “We want to win ‘cause every game we want to win,” said Weiss. “We have to be very lucky and very, very strong and resilient in this game, so it will be very tough.”

“If we could swing a surprise, it would be fantastic,” Weiss added. “But before that we have to give everything out and literally die on the pitch.”

The Azkals will play Indonesia next on Tuesday, November 21, also at 7 pm at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Headlining the 26-man Philippine squad are team captain and veteran goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, 34-year-old center back Carli de Murga, midfield maestros Manuel and Mike Ott, naturalized forward Bienvenido Marañon, and surprise inclusion Stephan Schröck.

The 37-year-old Schröck announced his retirement from international football during the AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup 2022, but returned to the squad and made an 18-minute cameo versus Nepal in a home friendly match last June 2023.

“I’ve chosen players who are ready for this fight,” said Weiss, who was questioned regarding the exclusion of young players like Sandro Reyes and Jarvey Gayoso for this international window.

“I think we could’ve tried and have them in the group, but I think for these games, they are not ready, or not ready yet, depends on how you see it,” said Weiss.

The 33-year-old Etheridge also backed Weiss’ roster choice.

“Coach made a decision, but it doesn’t mean he’s ruling anyone at all for future camps or future games, I think now it’s a test of character,” said Etheridge.

“My message to, obviously, the two boys (Reyes and Gayoso) that I’ve spoken to is to keep going, keep working, keep proving people wrong and [still join] the next camp.” 

‘Stand Your Ground, 10K Strong’

In an attempt to relieve the atmosphere during the Azkals’ glory days, the Philippine Football Federation launched the #StandYourGround #10KStrong campaign and encouraged the fans to flock the stadium as the national men’s team looks to match the success that the Filipinas, their women’s counterparts, achieved in the last few months. 

Etheridge, who has witnessed the highs and lows of Azkals football throughout the years, shared that the team is “happy and excited” with how the campaign is going, promising to give their best in front of the home crowd.

“It’ll be a great experience for everyone who steps in the field [on Thursday], everyone involved at the stadium, but we need to keep our composure,” he said.

“We understand the severity of the game… so we are very fortunate to have as many supporters as we do, and obviously, we want that to continue to that, then become the normal, if I’m honest.”

Aside from Vietnam and world No. 145 Indonesia, the 138th-ranked Azkals are also bunched with world No. 68 Iraq in a tough Group F.

A total of 36 teams drawn into nine groups of four will clash in the second round of the joint qualifiers, which run until June next year.

Each team will play their fellow groupmates twice in a home-and-away format for a total of six matches, with only the group winners and runners-up advancing to the third round outright.

The third- and fourth-placed teams in each group, meanwhile, still have a chance to proceed to the next round, but will have to go through another qualification phase. –

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