It was supposed to be a dream. Now it’s more like a nightmare for Philippine football. The Philippines failed to qualify for the Semi Finals of the Suzuki Cup for the first time since 2008 despite hosting the Group. With pitiful attendances there’s a lot to think about, with it now unlikely we’ll be hosting another Suzuki Cup Group for a long time.
So, as I wrote in a four part series on GMA nearly two years ago, the Azkals have hit a ceiling and grassroots are the only way to break it.
We’ve Been Spoiled
For the last three editions of the Suzuki Cup, Azkals fans have arguably been spoiled. The miracle in Hanoi, 2010, was both unexpected and deserved. A mess of an administration at the time stole the home game. The Philippines repeated the success in 2012 against a weakened Vietnam but Singapore edged a dull Semi Final. And in 2014 strong wins over Laos and an Indonesian team in disarray (FIFA banned them soon after) allowed comfortable qualification. Humbled by Vietnam in the last group game and by Thailand in the Semis, the Azkals saw the ceiling. This is the level the team have been at for around 4 years now. The players, the coaches, the management have all done wonders to get this far in such a short amount of time. But we cannot get better with what we’re doing right now. This is as good as it gets.
After losing to Thailand again, Coach Thomas Dooley gave this sound assessment: “We couldn’t score… that was bad.” To be fair, I actually think Dooley has done a very good job overall and he was right to commend the effort of the players. They pressed high and forced Thailand’s hand. But for a couple of great saves and a bit more luck, the Azkals could have nicked it. They really gave it a go.
In hindsight, it seems easy to say why the Philippines fell at this hurdle. With the Azkals’ top scorer played as a holding midfielder, and without a natural striker to replace him, the Philippines scored just two goals in three games, both from free-kicks. Juani, Gier, Lucena and others retired after the 2014 edition leaving only one natural defender in the back four for the first two games and as many as six of the starting eleven out of position overall. There were no ready, tested replacements waiting in the wings.
Now Marco Casambre, making his debut at 17 years old, did exceptionally well. I’d buy him a beer if he weren’t underage it’s that ridiculous how young this kid is. But for all the positives of his performance, that he was thrown into a do or die game against the best team in Southeast Asia for his international debut speaks to the utter lack of depth in the squad.
But it’s also not quite that simple. If Indonesia hadn’t scored a late winner against Singapore, the Philippines would have gone through. If the Azkals had nicked a late goal against Singapore themselves, they would have gone through. With just a bit more luck in any of those games, the Azkals would have gone through. There are plenty of ifs, buts, and maybes.
A Puddle Not a Pool
But we have to accept that this is the Azkals’ level. The management, Palami et al, have done wonders to raise the bar of the team to this level in such a short amount of time, but this is as far as the team can go without broader support.
Before the Suzuki Cup started, more than a few Philippine football writers and coaches were saying getting to the Semis again would be tough. These guys (and girls) support their country, support the team, they know how hard the Azkals management and players work… and they also know the limitations of Philippine football. For all the positives we know this for sure: the Azkals don’t have so much of a pool of players as a tiny puddle. The Azkals aren’t meant to be a team feeding the rest of the pyramid. They’re meant to be fed by the pyramid, supported by a competent structure of domestic football at youth and senior level. There’s no way to progress otherwise.
After the game Dooley said “It’s disappointing and we have to move on.” He’s right, but we need to talk about what the team moves on to. These players go back to a National League with nothing nailed down just 4 months before kick off. In an interview two years ago the PFF said they were pinning their grassroots hopes on the National League so serious grassroots efforts have been delayed. So many people in the Philippine game are saying it… and now some random white guy with a blog is saying it again.
The result is that the typical kid in the typical barangay still can’t play football (more in Part 2).
The Grassroots Aren’t Growing
Against most teams in Southeast Asia, the Azkals hold their own. But after six years there have been enough birthing pains, enough growing pains, and enough excuses. Every football expert sent by FIFA, every Head Coach of the National Team, and every grassroots coordinator/adviser has said the same thing. Every time the response is: ‘Thank you for your contribution’ and nothing changes. Everyone complains about the same things year after year. Whether they’re a tiny club in the middle of a slum or part of AFC and FIFA. So many people, from National Youth Team Coaches to grassroots and community coaches, are working incredibly hard… but they’re being let down.
And this is why there’s no market for the National League yet. National Leagues worked in the USA, Japan, and Australia because they were bottom up. There were hundreds of thousands of kids playing before a League took off. If you sell a ticket to a kid, you sell tickets to theit parents too. Right now, if 2,000 to 5,000 people show up for the Azkals, just a few hundred at UFL games, how many more do we expect to watch the same players? Not enough to justify professional contracts in a 10-game season, that’s for sure.
If we had invested in a grassroots structure beyond one day festivals (see Part 2) we would be seeing the results. We would see new people watching games because they play. We would see higher turnouts for UFL matches. We may not see different results with the Azkals yet, but we would certainly see better results with National Youth teams. Last year Bob Guerrero pointed out that the Philippine Youth Teams played 18 games and lost 17. I am very much interested to see what the record is in 2016.
We need to take the long-term approach or we move from one crisis to another. The defence rests on 21 year old Amani’s shoulders. And do we have any idea who could replace Phil Younghusband or Misagh (29 years old) or James and Schrock (30)? The Azkals management has gotten us this far… but they’re not supposed to have to plug all the gaps. That’s the job of Philippine football as a whole.
And that’s both the bad news and the good news. We have serious issues. Everybody knows it. But with targeted development, a vision and strategy, it is possible to revive Philippine football to an even better place. To develop a genuine football pyramid and break that ceiling.
And that will be Part 2: Reviving Philippine Football