The blistering heat wont be the only problem facing the Philippine football team, nicknamed the Azkals, who will face their
toughest test yet against a highly rated Kuwait side in the second round of the World Cup Qualifiers. After beating Sri Lanka 4-0 in their last outing, 5-1 on aggregate, hopes have been raised that the team can rise to the challenge as the team have become national celebrities in the past month. Kuwait, however, are jointly ranked at 102 in the world with Bahrain, 57 places above the Philippines at 159th. To further show the gulf in class, the Philippines’ highest ever ranking was in December last year at 150 while Kuwait’s highest position was in 1998 when they were ranked 24thin the world. Since, Kuwait have slipped massively in the rankings, while the Philippines have improved immensely and so both teams will be coming out to prove that they are worth more than their official rankings say. Both teams are also unbeaten in their last six international matches with the Philippines drawing three games and winning three games, while Kuwait have won four of their last six, drawing the other two. The difference, however, comes in the quality of the teams they have played highlighted by the training camps and tune up matches; the Philippines lost to the Bahrain under 23 Olympic side 2-1 then drew 1-1 in a second game while Kuwait prepared for the match by defeating Saudi Arabia and Iraq, both of which are ranked higher than the Philippines and Kuwait. Even Coach Michael Weiss admitted that getting a result against the reigning Gulf Cup of Nations Champions will be “the hardest task for us so far” in an interview with FIFA. The game will kick off on Sunday morning at 12:30am local time on ABS-CBN but the Philippines will be going into the game without their captain Aly Borromeo or the man of the match of the first leg against Sri Lanka, Stephan Schrock. Picking up yellow cards in both legs against Sri Lanka the Philippine Football Federation’s appeal against the decision has
been officially turned down by the Asian Football Confederation. The PFF argued that it was unfair for the lower-ranked teams who had to qualify for the second round, as higher ranked teams automatically qualify for the second round, and playing more games put them at a disadvantage with suspensions. The AFC, though, officially announced today that they would be refusing to endorse this appeal as the rules state that yellow cards may possibly be overturned in such a situation if the player hasn’t already been suspended but picking up two yellow cards both Schrock and Borromeo are ineligible. Chieffy Caligdong is expected to lead the Philippines out in the absence of Borromeo as the attack-minded winger has now scored in the last three Azkals games. Almost characteristic of the team and the Philippines in general, Coach Michael Weiss said that despite his size Chieffy is “dynamic and creative. He can provide the team with attacking spark and leadership,” With Borromeo’s replacement as captain clear, his replacement in the defence is more difficult to find, with injuries, suspensions and club commitments hampering the team’s progress. Nevertheless as always from myself, here’s a predicted lineup leading into the game with an added list of unavailable players.
Del Rosario Sabio Gier Jonsson
J. Younghusband Ott De Jong Caligdong
Suspended: Aly Borromeo & Stephan Schrock
Injured: Paul Mulders
Club commitments: Dennis Cagara, Jerry Lucena & Chris Greatwich
With three changes to the starting lineup last time out and only managing a draw against Sri Lanka away from home, the Azkals will likely play a defensive formation to try and contain the Kuwaitis. Using the speed of Chieffy Caligdong on the counter-attack, James Younghusband will provide passion on the opposite flank though an untested partnership in the midfield is an experiment. It is these counter attacks which will give the Philippines the best chance of success, playing defensively and allowing Kuwait to advance before trying to steal the ball and play quickly their the badly-positioned opposition. Already cautioned from the last game against Sri Lanka a second yellow card would see James Younghusband miss the return match in the Rizal Memorial Stadium on the 28th. Such passion,
however, is a risk worth taking as without it the Philippines will be dominated by the Kuwait team, a powerhouse of the Asian continent. Another start for the young Manny Ott will help this cause as Weiss describes him as a driving force in the midfield, something that will be necessary given Schrock’s absence. The teen Azkal said in the lead up to the game “we are optimistic and have a good chance if we can work the counter-attack well”. The style of play and replacements for injuries, suspensions and club commitments are difficult decisions for Coach Weiss and Manager Palami and though a lot rides on the outcome of the first leg true fans will be supporting until the end. The qualifying matches may well be difficult for the Philippines but just two years ago no-one ever expected the team to get this far. Indeed beating Sri Lanka and making it the second round of qualification was the first time the Philippines have ever achieved this feat and even defeat against Kuwait will make history as the furthest the team have ever gone in the competition. With tickets for the home game at Rizal Memorial Stadium selling out in an hour the team are well supported with home games providing a huge atmosphere of Philippine pride and support led by the Kaholeros, the official cheering squad of the team. Win or lose these games are set to be great moments in Philippine football as well as a great learning experience for the players, staff and even fans.
Weiss noted this in summarising the team to FIFA, saying that: “The team have improved a great deal over the past months, particularly in regards to attitude. We have spent much on physical training so they are fit to compete at this level. They used to stick to long-ball tactics but now the team play a good passing game and are stronger in organisation”. The Philippines have taken great strides in football and improved massively. In a short space of time they have qualified for the Semi-Finals of the Suzuki Cup, the AFC Challenge Cup Finals and the Second Round of the World Cup Qualifiers. The team has put football on the map in the Philippines and true fans will understand that greater success takes time. The Azkals are improving at each stage and the next round may be even more difficult to reach but regardless of the result fans will remain proud of the team that have already achieved history in reaching this stage.