After U15 triumph, girls look to U17 World Cup
It’s easy to judge the silver medal the Philippines won in the AFF Girls U15 tournament as a testament to how much ground we have to cover when to comes to moving the country forward in the sport in international tournaments.
In a span of one year, the team went from a 1-0 loss to Asian powerhouse Thailand in the U14 championship match—a game the team believes it really could have won—to a 6-2 defeat in the finals of the U15 age-group.
“The improvement of Thailand from U14 to U15 was remarkably greater than our improvement,” said coach Marielle Benitez, the former national team and La Salle standout, who inherited the squad from U14 coach Joyce Landagan.
But there is another way of looking at it: Stand from the starting point and marvel at how far the team has gone.
“We’re way past just joining tournaments just to participate,” said Benitez.
In fact, the U15 squad went to Laos to compete for the gold medal and was naturally disappointed when that dream fell short.
“Our mindset was to win nothing less than the gold,” said Benitez. “For the girls who participated in the U14 last year, we feel that we had unfinished business with Thailand. Our goal was to make it back to the finals and improve on our silver and eventually win the gold this year.”
And that’s exactly what the team set out to do. Keeping a clean sheet in the group stage by shutting down Indonesia (2-0), Cambodia (3-0) and Singapore (3-0), the Malditas encountered adversity only in the semifinals, when Myanmar pushed the girls to a 1-2 deficit.
“When they scored the second goal, I said to myself, ‘no way,’” said striker Maria Lazo. “There’s no way we’re going to lose. We beat this team 5-1 before, there’s no way we’re losing tonight.”
“It all happened so fast,” said midfielder KC Zalamea. “They scored against us and it was tied and then all of a sudden, they were leading na. But like the coaches always told us, ‘refuse to lose’ and we kept pushing until the end.”
Benitez and teammates Lazo, Zalamea, Anya Fuentes and Martina Torres, along with assistant coach Elyo Dillera talked about their campaign in the AFF Girls U15 tournament in a recent visit to Sports IQ, the Inquirer’s live multiplatform sports talk show.
“I was praying the entire time,” Dillera said about trailing Myanmar. “It was a test of faith. I was looking at the demeanor of the girls on the pitch and even if they conceded two goals, none of them bowed, none of them had their shoulders down. So I knew na lalaban sila.”
Eventually, the Philippines came back to win that game against Myanmar on a goal by Mirya Garcia in the last four minutes of the game to set the stage for the Thailand rematch.
Zalamea, Lazo, Fuentes and Torres all admitted to being nervous against the Thais, especially since, as Zalamea and Benitez put it, there was this “unfinished business” they wanted to deal with.
But steadying nerves became easier once the girls were on the pitch.
“Once you remember you’re playing for the flag, you really have pride and determination because you’re doing this for the country,” said Fuentes, a midfielder.
“It began to feel good because you’re one step closer to your goal of winning the gold,” added Torres, another midfielder.
But Thailand’s improvement from the team the Philippines nearly upset a year ago was marked. Their ball control was peerless and their passes seemed radar guided. And after keeping the Thais within reach for a little over a half of the match, the Filipinos suddenly felt their bid slipping away.
“We were able to keep it tight until the first 10 to 15 minutes in the second half,” Benitez said. “And it wasn’t until the end of the match that Thailand pull away.”
In the end, the girls lost the gold, but not their spirits.
The disappointment lasted for the whole of “10 minutes,” Lazo said, drawing laughter from her teammates.
“I was like huhu (crying),” said Fuentes. “But we were all happy during the awarding.”
“Initially, it was more of pain because we were really going for the gold,” Benitez said. “But like when we were able to recover from that final whistle and after we saw the girls crying and broken, we told them there’s nothing to be ashamed of with your performance. You can walk into the pitch with your held head high.
“It was only when we were heading home and we started getting messages on social media that we realized, yeah it may be a silver but it is a big deal that you’ve been able to inspire other people to take up the sport. That’s when you also realize that a silver medal isn’t that bad at all,” said Benitez.
Not bad, yes, but there’s a chance to shoot for more.
“At this level we’ve proven that we can be at par with the best,” Benitez said. “We’ve seen the improvement of Thailand from U14 to U15. By the time they move to the next age group, polished na sila. For us to get to that level, we have to keep this team together, get them into pocket camps, get them good matches and international friendlies where they will get that kind of exposure.”
After all, the World Cup beckons.
If team qualifies and performs well in the U16 tournament, the Filipinos will have a chance to shoot for a slot in the U17 women’s World Cup.
“So having a Philippine team in the World Cup is close to reality, if we’re able to keep this team together at a high level,” said Benitez.
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