Asian football

New PH men’s football coach Saintfiet ‘very proud’ despite losing debut vs Iraq

Juro Morilla

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New PH men’s football coach Saintfiet ‘very proud’ despite losing debut vs Iraq

FIGHTERS. The Philippines’ Simen Lyngbo disputes the ball against Iraq in the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 qualifiers.


It may not be the result the Filipinos wanted, but the national men’s football team under new coach Tom Saintfiet impresses, proving to be compact defensively and routinely denying the goal-hungry Iraqis 

MANILA, Philippines – New Philippine men’s football team head coach Tom Saintfiet had expected Iraq to deliver an attacking spectacle.

So Saintfiet felt “very proud” when the Philippines, despite being the absolute underdogs, kept world No. 59 Iraq scoreless for the majority of the match before succumbing to a 1-0 loss in the second round of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 preliminary joint qualifiers on Friday, March 22, at the Basra International Stadium in Basra.

“I’m disappointed about the defeat because I hate losing… but I’m very proud of the performance of my team,” said Saintfiet after his first competitive match with the 139th-ranked Filipinos.

“Iraq was very strong, but I think the Philippines could compete. Our goal was to try to keep it at 0-0. Like I said, my team did very well, but one moment [our players] let go of concentration and Iraq utilized it.”

Iraq center forward Mohanad Ali broke the deadlock and scored the winning goal at the 84th minute by outmuscling Philippine defender Christian Rontini before beating veteran goalkeeper Neil Etheridge with a fantastic right-footed volley inside the penalty box.

Even though it was not the result that the Filipinos were looking for, Saintfiet immediately impressed with his tactics as the Philippines proved to be compact defensively, routinely denied the goal-hungry Iraqis, and showed composure in front of the jam-packed stadium. 

“The Iraqi team had, most of the time, no solution against the tactical discipline of the [Philippine] team,” the Belgian coach said. 

“We knew the qualities of Iraq, the wings… It was clear for most of the time, Iraq had difficulties, had no answer, no solution.” 

A day before the match, Saintfiet noted how “dangerous” and “very good” Iraq looks on all fronts. 

“The quality of this Iraq team is not one player, danger can come from the right, come from the left… dangerous from the center, infiltration, wing-backs, it’s a very good team with a lot of quality players,” said the 50-year-old mentor. 

“Skillful, powerful, good technique, the whole team for me is very good.” 

The mistimed punch from Ali’s goal sequence aside, Philippine team captain Etheridge was the standout Filipino player as he produced two excellent saves in the opening 20 minutes to deny Ali from breaking the deadlock early.

At the 32nd minute, Etheridge kept the Philippines afloat once more by brilliantly parrying away Amir Al-Ammari’s left-footed shot outside the box to keep the score at 0-0. 

With an incredible home crowd behind them, the Iraqis continued their relentless onslaught on the offensive end as they dominated the possession and bombarded the Philippines’ penalty box with crosses from either side.

Iraq finally found an opening in the Philippines defense as Al-Ammari launched an outstanding lobbed through ball to set up Ali for the winner.

The Iraqis’ narrow victory solidified their position at the top of Group F with 9 points and a +6 goal difference after three games.

For the Filipinos, their second loss in the second round put a massive dent on their hopes of claiming an outright berth in the next round as they fell to the bottom of the group with 1 point and a -3 goal difference.

Indonesia sits second with 4 points and a -3 goal difference, while Vietnam is just close behind at third with 3 points and a flat 0 goal difference.

Only the group winners and runners-up will claim an outright berth in the third round of the joint qualifiers.

The Philippines will look to bounce back and claim a breakthrough victory in the second round on Tuesday, March 26, as it challenges Iraq once again at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila. 

“The progress we made was very good,” said Saintfiet, noting the brief preparation time he had with his new team.

“Hopefully, we surprise Iraq in Manila again.” –

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