Stalled by match cancellations due to pandemic, Cooper uses idle time to map out Azkals path
It may take some time before the Philippine men’s football team sees action again with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic suspending competitions, including a World Cup and AFC Asian Cup Qualifying match this month, but Azkal coach Scott Cooper has kept himself busy, mapping out short and long-term plans for the program that players feel have made tremendous progress in the past year.
The Azkals are currently in third spot in their World Cup Qualifying group with seven points, behind unbeaten Syria and China, but they still have two more home matches late this year against Guam and Maldives and an away clash against the Chinese, whom they held to a goalless draw in Bacolod last year.
The performances have been encouraging as far as the Azkals are concerned as Cooper has injected a new philosophy and culture within the squad. Even with the 0-1 defeat to Syria in their last match last year, the Azkals showed they can compete against some of the best teams in the continent.
“The team is playing more offensive than ever and it looks like they can play against any other team anywhere,” Cooper told the Inquirer. “Our future is bright. We are very optimistic. And we’re putting plans in place to continue our development.”
“Suddenly, there is now a belief in the players and staff that performing well against much higher ranked countries isn’t rare,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami. “We’re more confident that we can be one of the best teams in Asia. There is certainly a paradigm shift in terms of the culture that we have in the team.”
Azkals captain Stephan Schrock feels an injection of a winning “DNA” in the team.
“The team has undergone a complete renovation,” said Schrock. “We not only have a new system that matches the players we have – but also the opponent we play can be matched in a simple adjustment. Every player gets a fair chance to showcase what he can bring to the team. But the most important thing in my eyes is the winner DNA. We got happy with ‘we almost made it and we got so close’ in the past.”
Cooper stressed the importance of sustaining the progress even with the current situation.
Working alongside team manager Dan Palami, the Irish coach set up the Azkals Development Team that will be part as guest team of the Philippines Football League, which has prompted collegiate star Jarvey Gayoso to forego his final year in the UAAP to join the team.
“We’ve been able to identify younger players with specific talents who have a bright future ahead,” said Cooper, a former Leicester City youth coach, who actually showed a keen eye for potential stars when he had 12 of his former club players called up for national team in Thailand.
Among the new players Cooper has discovered for a possible Azkals stint is 18-year-old homegrown star Lance Ocampo, who stood out in a recent friendly against Kaya Iloilo and against the Philippine Army.
“We’re revitalizing the current team, searching for new potential impact players while the ADT program is up and running,” said Cooper. “We just need results to back it up.”
The Azkals are also seeing action in the AFF Suzuki Cup late this year and Cooper has maintained a positive approach during the pandemic by sending home nutritional and workout out plans for players as well as sending tactical videos.
Azkals veteran Neil Etheridge believes the team is moving in the right direction.
“It’s been a pleasure being a part of the new look team as it’s going in the right direction and that’s exactly what I wanted,” the goalkeeper said. “We do look better and stronger than I have seen us and like I said there’s a lot more I feel we can add to become even better and a stronger force in Asia.”