As Azkals find success, club football hits a major hump
Philippine football achieved huge milestones in 2018, but it ended the year on a subdued note with setbacks overseas and at home, leaving the sport still searching for more support and stability heading into the new year.
The Azkals provided the year’s high note, nailing an Asian Cup berth for the country for the first time in history in March.
In front of an electrifying crowd at Rizal Memorial Stadium, the Azkals fought back from a goal down to beat Tajikistan, 2-1, to clinch qualification to the continental showcase in the United Arab Emirates.
“We showed our character,” said a teary-eyed Azkals goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, after Phil Younghusband’s 50th goal for the country sealed the victory. “That was the Azkals I knew. Never giving up no matter what.”
The feat also meant so much to the team’s biggest backer, Dan Palami, who has been bankrolling the team since 2010. “We’ve been through a lot, especially for me,” the Azkals team manager said. “We have not always been successful, but to make it to the bigger stage after all those heartaches, it’s fulfilling.”
The 24-nation Asian Cup, which begins on Jan. 5, will be the biggest tournament yet for the Azkals, who will square off with heavyweights South Korea, China and Kyrgyzstan in the group stage.
“This is on another level,” said Younghusband. “This is where we want to be as a football country and hopefully this is just the start.”
Etheridge also reached new heights in his career as he played a huge role in Welsh club Cardiff City’s promotion to the English Premier League.
With 19 clean sheets in the Championship, the Filipino international helped Cardiff to a second place finish. In August, Etheridge became the first Southeast Asian to play in the most lucrative football league in the world.
“Emotions were running high when we made it to the Asian Cup, but making the Premier League was also a priority for me,” said Etheridge.
The unbeaten run in Asian Cup qualifying, however, was not enough for coach Thomas Dooley to keep his job.
Former England captain Terry Butcher was hired, but he withdrew from the job without even meeting the team and it was coach Scott Cooper, a former champion in the Thai League, who took charge of the team as it began its buildup for the Asian Cup.
In a bold and ambitious move before the year ended, the Azkals hired former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson to handle the team in the AFF Suzuki Cup and the Asian Cup with Cooper as assistant.
The Swede guided the Azkals to another semifinal appearance in the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup. The Azkals lost two legs to eventual champion Vietnam in the last four.
But even with the success of the national team, club football in the country remained unstable and with another club, Davao Aguilas, leaving the league before the year ended.
The Philippine Premier League will take the place of the Philippines Football League, with kickoff set for March.
But with Ceres Negros, Kaya Iloilo and Stallion Laguna the only clubs that are certain to participate, organizers of the PPL have a tough task establishing the league, which has struggled to draw support and sponsors.
The home-and-away format of the PFL proved demanding for the clubs logistically and financially, with almost zero return from investment.
“There was no revenue, no national sponsorship, no television media and limited attendance at stadiums with numerous restrictions being forced,” PPL commissioner Bernie Sumayao admitted. “The PPL is a new neutral independent league whose main objective is to contribute to the development of football in the country. We have to stay positive and never lose hope.”
The difficult situation in the PFL has made the achievement of its reigning champion Ceres all the more remarkable.
The Busmen got off to a flying start this year, reaching the third round of the AFC Champions League highlighted by a stunning 3-2 win over Australian club Brisbane Roar. Ceres made a good account of itself in a 0-2 defeat to Chinese powerhouse Tianjin Quanjian.
That set Ceres up for another strong run to the AFC Asean zonal final, where it lost to Home United of Singapore. Still, the Busmen clinched a second straight PFL trophy and booked a return ticket to the Champions League next year.
Kaya took the other domestic trophy—the Copa Paulino Alcantara—and also bagged the second AFC Cup spot allotted for the Philippines.
There was also heartbreak for the women’s national team, which nearly made it to the Women’s World Cup in France next year.
A campaign that started with plenty of promise ended with a whimper as the Malditas failed to follow up their 2-1 win over host Jordan.
The Malditas atoned for their failed AFC Asian Cup bid by storming to the next round of the 2020 Women’s Olympics Football Tournament.
On the heels of another year of mixed results, the year 2019 could be the most critical yet for Philippine football.