Asian football

PH men’s football resumes World Cup, Asian Cup qualifying campaign vs Iraq

Juro Morilla

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PH men’s football resumes World Cup, Asian Cup qualifying campaign vs Iraq

GOALIE. Neil Etheridge in action for the Philippine men's football team.

Philippine Football Federation Facebook page

Hoping to usher in a new era, the rejigged Philippine men’s football team targets a breakthrough victory in the second round of the joint qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup and AFC Asian Cup

MANILA, Philippines – Following a winless run in its first two games in the second round of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 preliminary joint qualifiers, the Philippine men’s football team attempts to arrest its skid against host Iraq on Thursday, March 21 (Friday, March 22, Manila time) at the Basra International Stadium in Basra.

The pivotal clash versus heavyweight Iraq will be the first competitive match for the rejigged Philippines as the national team underwent multiple major changes after the first window of the second round of the joint qualifiers.

John Gutierrez was elected in November to succeed Mariano “Nonong” Araneta as the new Philippine Football Federation (PFF) president, while Freddy Gonzalez took over as the new team manager after Dan Palami stepped down from the position.

Tom Saintfiet, meanwhile, will be the new head coach of the national team as the Belgian replaced Hans Michael Weiss, the German who returned to coach the Philippines for a second time following the stints of Thomas Dooley, Josep Ferré, and Barae Jrondi. 

In addition to introducing the 50-year-old Saintfiet last February 2024, the PFF also decided to drop the iconic Azkals moniker to usher in a new era for the men’s team. 

“I’m not here to have a job, I’m here to succeed, that’s my ambition, that’s the ambition of the federation,” said Saintfiet, who recently handled the Gambia men’s football team before accepting the Philippine job.

The Philippines’ road to a World Cup qualification looks gloomy at the moment as the Filipinos are currently at third place in Group F with 1 point and a -2 goal difference, slightly ahead of Indonesia, which sits at the bottom with 1 point and a -4 goal difference.

Iraq is at the top of the standings with 6 points and a +5 goal difference, while Vietnam is just behind with 3 points and a +1 goal difference. 

The teams will play against each other twice in a home-and-away format for a total of six matches, with only the group winner and runner-up proceeding to the third round of the joint qualifiers outright.

Meanwhile, the bottom two teams will have to go through another qualification phase to advance to the next round.

Saintfiet has called up 28 players to form the pool for the second round of the joint qualifiers, including experienced goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who captained the club in the first window of the second round and currently plays club football for Birmingham City FC in England.

Joining Etheridge as the goalies of the squad are former De La Salle University standout Patrick Deyto and 29-year-old Kevin Ray Hansen.

The outfielders completing the 28-man pool are Amani Aguinaldo, Pocholo Bugas, Marco Casambre, Jesse Curran, Simen Lyngbo, Jesper Nyholm, Christian Rontini, Daisuke Sato, Jefferson Tabinas, Paul Tabinas, Justin Baas, Matthew Baldisimo, Michael Baldisimo, Kevin Ingreso, Oskari Kekkonen, Mike Ott, Jose Elmer Porteria, Santiago Rublico, Mark Swainston, Andres Aldeguer, Jeremiah Borlongan, Jarvey Gayoso, Theo Libarnes, Patrick Reichelt, and Chima Uzoka.

Saintfiet chose a mixture of youngsters and veteran talent in his maiden Philippine squad and praised all the coaches in the country for developing “quality players with a lot of skill [and] the right mentality.”

Despite the abundance of talent at his disposal, Saintfiet admitted that the away clash versus world No. 59 Iraq will be “tough” as the 139th-ranked Philippines will come in the match as the definite “underdogs.”

“We know that Iraq is the big favorite, the strongest team,” said Saintfiet. “For me they are [the] favorite to win the championship in Qatar in the Asia Cup and probably they can qualify for the World Cup so we have nothing to lose.” –

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