MANILA—The Philippine Azkals are setting their sights on qualifying for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia. And they will get their first shot as early as March next year when they see action in the final round of the AFC Challenge Cup hosted by Nepal.
“Bringing home the Challenge Cup is our next target as it ensures our participation for the 2015 the Asian Cup,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami. “It’s not akin to the World Cup, but the hype and excitement will be at the level of the World Cup.”
This early, Palami is already mulling the staging of friendlies for the Azkals in preparation for the Challenge Cup.
Palami rattled off India and Pakistan as prospective opponents for friendly matches for the Azkals in October.
“All of the friendly matches we will have are preparatory to the Challenge Cup and keep our rankings up,” said Palami, who had lamented the recent drop of the Azkals’ position in the Fifa rankings despite their victories against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh early this year.
When Palami flies to Europe late this month, he intends to talk to the clubs of Europe-based Azkals like Stephan Schrock, Paul Mulders, Jerry Lucena and Dennis Cagara and lobby for their release for the March 3 to 18 tournament.
“We want to bring the best possible team to the Challenge Cup,” he said.
Although he has yet to reveal their names, Palami is also seeking to talk to new Filipino prospects for the team based in Europe.
“So far, we have six names, but it might expand to 10 before I leave,” said Palami.
The Azkals return to action in the Long Teng Cup starting Sept. 28 in Taiwan, with Palami expected to field a mix of the seniors team and the Under-23 squad that is preparing for the Southeast Asian Games in Jakarta in November.
The Azkals advanced to the AFC Challenge Cup main tournament for the first time by overcoming Mongolia in pre-qualifying, before finishing second behind Palestine in the group qualifying in Myanmar last March.
The other teams that qualified for the Challenge Cup, a competition for emerging Asian countries, are North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Maldives, Nepal and India.
The Azkals saw their World Cup qualifying run end last July 28 when they lost to Kuwait, 1-5, on aggregate after the second round.
Still, the Azkals already made history by reaching the second round after beating Sri Lanka in their first World Cup qualifying tie in close to 10 years.
The Azkals missed standouts like Lucena, Cagara and Mulders in the Kuwait tie because of club commitments
“This early we will already ask permission for their clubs so that it will be easier for us next year,” Palami added.