Philippines determined to make Challenge Cup final defeat a blip in upward trend

A problem with tournaments is that, the old Intertoto Cup aside, only one team can emerge as the winner.

Only one side can return home with silverware as tangible proof of their success, pointing to the medals around their necks as a way to reassure the faithful and silence the doubters.

Palestine's 1-0 victory in the AFC Challenge Cup final on Friday denied the Philippines that tangible proof. Winning the final edition of the Challenge Cup would not only have given the Azkals (Filipino for "street dogs") their first major international championship and a place at the 2015 Asian Cup, it would have affirmed their continuing evolution from one of Asia's doormats to one of the continent's new upwardly mobile nations.

Instead, the Philippines must rely on more indirect, yet still compelling, evidence that their rise is no fluke. Having sunk to 195th in the Fifa world rankings in September 2006, the Azkals burst onto the scene by reaching the semi-finals of the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup – the Southeast Asian regional championship – and backed up that showing by reaching the last four of the Challenge Cup and Suzuki Cup in 2012.

Philippines captain Rob Gier said the dramatic 1-1 draw with Singapore in the 2010 Suzuki Cup was the start of a succession of new highs.

“We joke about it now that we look back and we really don’t know what happened. It was an achievement to get to the Suzuki Cup final stages as it was,” he said. “We scored a last-minute equaliser against Laos that sent us there. That was our biggest achievement, then the first game happened. Chris Greatwich scored the equaliser in the 90th minute, and then that was the greatest thing that ever happened to football in the Philippines. Then we go beat Vietnam in Vietnam, and then that was the greatest thing.

“I really honestly don’t know what it was. I can’t put my finger on it. It was one of those fairy tales that many skeptics don’t believe happen in football, but this was just a group of young guys going out there representing their country, great team spirit, great togetherness. We were laying down our bodies for each other in that tournament. Perhaps we didn’t have the technical ability of some of the other teams, but it goes to show what dedication, belief and hard work can do. That was the building blocks of what is happening today.”

Among the building blocks supporting this success are the recruitment and integration of players with Filipino heritage who are based abroad, a renewed focus on cultivating local talent in the Philippines, and increased support from the Philippines Football Federation (PFF) and the private sector.

Starting in the early 2000s, efforts by the PFF to scout Philippines-eligible players based abroad brought swift dividends in terms of talent and squad depth. In addition to Gier and Greatwich, the likes of Neil Etheridge, Roland Muller, Juan Guirado, Stephan Schrock, Jerry Lucena, Martin Steuble, Paul Mulders and brothers Phil and James Younghusband – all born to Filipino mothers – made contributions during the run to the Challenge Cup final.

There are several potential pitfalls to importing talent to bolster the national team. Questions may arise over how much the new arrivals’ decision was based on a love for the country versus a lack of options elsewhere, while local players who have been part of the national team’s growth may feel slighted at being shunted aside to make room for a Johnny-come-lately.

Etheridge, though, said the team had not encountered problems with clashing egos while integrating the new arrivals.

“There’s no arrogance when the boys from abroad come over. People might look into the camp and say, ‘Oh, he’s come from abroad with a better lifestyle, maybe financially better off,’” he said. “The European guys are very humble and respect every player. It’s really a family.

“At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we’re all here to do the same purpose. Our mum or dad or grandma or grandad, one of them is Filipino. It’s brought a bunch of guys together that really have respect for each other. There’s not many teams I’ve been involved in that have had that. It’s a great atmosphere to play football in and it helps us.”

Efforts to find Filipinos based abroad look set to continue. Philippines team manager Dan Palami said last week that several players had expressed interest in joining the Azkals for the Challenge Cup but did not receive clearance in time for the tournament. He also mentioned Australia as a potential source of players with Filipino heritage.

Mining foreign leagues for talent will only sustain the national team for so long, though. Establishing a long-term pipeline of players for the Azkals, as well as a firm foothold for football in a basketball-loving country, requires the development of grassroots football and leagues within the Philippines. To that end, the United Football League (UFL) was launched in 2010 as the country’s new top-flight football league.

Those efforts are also starting to bear fruit for the national team. Fourteen of the Philippines’ players at the Challenge Cup play their football in the UFL, and six were consistent starters in the Maldives. Notable among them were a pair of 19 year olds, left-back Daisuke Sato and centre-back Amani Aguinaldo, who only recently were called into the Azkals set-up by coach Thomas Dooley.

Dooley, who joined the Philippines in February on a one-year contract, said the loss to Palestine would not tarnish the long-term progress his team made during the Challenge Cup.

“My task was to win the Challenge Cup and I didn’t. But on the other hand, I was trying to build something with the team and I think we did a pretty good job through to the final, so I think this team has a bright future,” he said. “If we continue to work hard and find more young players, I think we will have a great future.

“The young players are the future, so we have to find players and we have to develop the players. Sato is 19 years old, Amani is 19 years old, and OJ [Porteria] and Ken [Daniels] who came in, they have a future in the national team. It doesn’t mean we want to kick the old players out, but maybe the pace of the game will be better and it is good to have a young average age, especially with young players who can develop.”

That development requires money, something that until recently was in short supply at the PFF. Longer-tenured players described teams gathering a week before a tournament in the early 2000s and often training with a lack of equipment or on pitches strewn with glass bottles and other rubbish.

Palami, the chief executive of railway engineering firm Autre Porte Global, has taken a hands-on role since his appointment as team manager in 2010. He has set up grassroots initiatives and provided funding for training camps and friendlies at improved facilities, as well as covering the cost of flying in players from abroad.

“None of this is possible without Mr. Palami. Obviously the PFF back us, but there’s just not the resources. The PFF didn’t have the money to pump into the program that they wanted to, and then Mr. Palami came along and was a saviour,” Gier said.

“What it comes down to is Boss Dan is a wealthy man. He’s put money into it, but it’s his love for the game and enthusiasm. You often see him on the training pitch, playing with the guys, doing a bit of keepie-uppie and two-touch. He’s not someone who puts his money in and sits back in his office and looks at the results on the Internet. He’s here all the time, and the guys really appreciate that. He takes care of us, and none of this is possible without the boss. He does it for the love of the game, the love of the Philippines.”

With the Challenge Cup in their rear-view mirror, the Philippines turn their attention to the Suzuki Cup, which takes place later this year in Singapore and Vietnam. The Azkals are exempt from qualifying as semi-finalists in the previous edition.

Success is far from certain for the Philippines, with regional giants Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand lurking and Australia potentially joining the fray after becoming a full Asean Football Federation member last August. Even so, it would be foolish to dismiss two-time semi-finalists whose improvement shows no signs of slowing.

“If you said to me we’d be in this position in 10 years’ time, I’d have said you’re a liar,” said Greatwich, who joined the national team in 2004. “But if we continue on this upward trend, who knows where we’ll be in 10 years’ time?”

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