Male, Maldives // It is a testament to how far the Philippines have come as a footballing nation that, on the cusp of securing their greatest achievement, the mood in the Azkals camp is one of expectation rather than excitement.
For years, just getting out of the qualifying rounds and into the tournament proper was cause for celebration. The Philippines were minnows even in their own region, losing 19 of their 21 matches during the first seven editions of the AFF Suzuki Cup, the Southeast Asian regional championship.
Now, though, their trajectory is most definitely skyward. The Philippines reached the semi-finals of the 2010 and 2012 Suzuki Cups and finished third at the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup. After winning Group B in this year's Challenge Cup and setting up a semi-final on Tuesday against hosts the Maldives, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge said there was still a sense of unfinished business.
“There was an interesting atmosphere at the end of the group. The atmosphere was very low, not in a sense of we haven’t achieved anything but that we haven’t reached our full potential yet,” he said.
“We don’t believe we’ve done our job yet. We believe it’s only half-done. It’s a great environment to be in because everyone is not satisfied. Until we take that cup home, the job won’t be done. If we don’t take it home for whatever reason, we’ll be disappointed with ourselves.”
The Philippines and Maldives meet at National Stadium in Male in the second semi-final at 8pm UAE time, preceded at 2.30pm by Group A winners Palestine taking on Afghanistan. The winners play on Friday to determine who receives a berth in the 2015 Asian Cup as winners of the final Challenge Cup.
It is all quite a distance from September 2006, when the Philippines hit their nadir of 195th in the Fifa rankings and sat above just two other teams, Anguilla and the Cook Islands, with rankings points. Just taking part is no longer good enough, and Azkals captain Rob Gier said the run to the last four of the 2010 Suzuki Cup spurred the team to expect more of themselves.
“We’ve gone from one extreme to the other. When I joined in 2009, it was an achievement to get a point in the qualifying stage, and today we come out here and we’re considered one of the favourites to win the thing,” he said.
“We’ve slowly been progressing in the right direction. We’ve always known we had the talent, we just needed the direction. The momentum we gained in the 2010 Suzuki Cup just snowballed from there. It’s as much self-confidence and belief as anything else. When you go into games as we were, thinking we’d really like to get a point here, and then all of a sudden we’re doing really well in the Suzuki Cup 2010 and it’s like, hang on a minute, we’re mixing it with these guys, we can go out and compete. Since then, it’s been an absolute whirlwind of loads of highs, not many lows.”
After finishing second to Laos in 2010 Suzuki Cup qualifying, the Philippines earned a point in their opening match against Singapore thanks to a 93rd-minute equaliser from Chris Greatwich. A 2-0 defeat of Vietnam in Hanoi and a 0-0 draw with Myanmar sent the Azkals into the semi-finals for the first time. The dream run ended there with a 2-0 aggregate loss to Indonesia, having to play both legs in Jakarta because of the lack of stadiums in the Philippines that were up to Asean Football Federation standards.
If the Philippines are to go one better and reach the Challenge Cup final, they will need every ounce of their strength in depth. Etheridge and defender Juan Guirado are out for the tournament with injuries, and midfielder Stephan Schrock and forward Ruben Doctora did not train on Monday after coming off early during Saturday’s Group B finale against Turkmenistan. In addition, defender Dennis Cagara has left the team after being summoned by his club, Lyngby, for their final three matches of the Danish First Division season.
When the Philippines take the field on Tuesday, there will be friendly faces among the thousands of red-clad Maldives supporters. There were large sections of Azkals fans at National Stadium for the Turkmenistan match, and ticket sales on Monday suggested they will be out in force again for the semi-finals.
“Wherever we go, we have fans. Filipinos live all over the world,” Philippines coach Thomas Dooley said. “Some countries have more. This is a country that doesn’t have 10 million people. Wherever we are, we find fans. We knew we had some over here, and that helped us. We are happy that wherever we go, we have fans.”