A scrap to eat from the top table for Philippines football team

With basketball and boxing so dominant in the country, The Azkals face Uzbekistan and Australia in Dubai hoping the UAE's 500,000 Filipinos will turn up in support.

Michael Weiss, centre, the Philippines coach, will prepare his side for two games in Dubai this month. Cheryl Ravelo / Reuters
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DUBAI // In a world of Indomitable Lions and Super Eagles, the sobriquet for the Philippines national football team appears to have been lost in translation.

The squad are called The Azkals, a Tagalog term translating as stray dogs, and was inherited in 2005 when players, growing disillusioned by their inability to siphon some of the swollen support shown to boxing and basketball in their homeland, said they felt they were living off leftover scraps.

Seven years later much has changed. Michael Weiss, the team's German manager, concedes he still faces "a new challenge every day", but with home games "almost always a sell-out" and the squad arriving in the UAE this week as part of a Middle East tour, there are signs football is preparing to take the fight to the country's more dominant sports.

"Before, people thought the Philippines was just beaches and nice girls, but now we are developing football," Weiss said at a press conference announcing two Dubai-based exhibition matches. "There is still so much to do here, so many areas to improve and the basic stuff has taken a long time, but now at least we are all able to wear the same T-shirts."

Weiss, wearing a blue Azkals training top with the Philippines national flag on its sleeve, was joined by the captain Emelio Caligdong and James Younghusband, an England-born midfielder who, having graduating from Chelsea's youth academy, now plays for Manila-based Loyola Meralco Sparks.

The team will face Uzbekistan Under 23s on Saturday before travelling to Qatar to meet Doha-based Al Ahli. They will return to the UAE for a final match with Australia's U23 team next Thursday. "It's been a difficult past couple of months," said Younghusband, who is joined in the Azkals squad by brother Philip. "The Philippines is still a developing nation in football, but we are all trying to reach the same goal. The three games should provide a great test for us and we are hopeful of a strong turnout."

Benito Valeriano, the consul-general of the Philippines, said there are more than 500,000 Filipinos in the UAE, but Weiss is more focused on performances than posteriors on plastic seats.

"Teams here have maybe five pitches to train on, whereas we have maybe only five pitches in the whole of Manila," he said. "It is important we make the most of this opportunity."

The training camp is seen as ideal preparation for the Azkals' AFC Challenge Cup campaign, which runs from March 8-19 in Kathmandu. The Philippines have been drawn in a group with India, North Korea and Tajikstan, all previous winners of the tournament for developing football nations.