In the year 2010, the Philippine national football team, the Azkals, a squad composed of the best local and foreign Filipino talent, were practicaly unknown. Their then-coach, Englishman Des Bulpin, left his position to take a coaching job in India, while his team was in mid-preparation for the Asean Football Cup qualifiers set to take place in three months. The following year, much had changed. It was if the Azkals had suddenly decided that they had enough of the shadows and wanted to be in the spotlight.
Seemingly powered by a newly-found sense of purpose, the Azkals began playing with more intensity, better chemistry and, yes, swagger, than they had shown before. In proving they were center stage material, the squad began catching attention for the best reason of all – by winning.
Back then, all they had was heart and a desire to prove themselves. Now, they have a whole country watching their quest to bring the Philippines its first football trophy.
“It’s a tough group,” says Philippine Football Federation (PFF) President Nonong Araneta of the countries in FIFA’s Group H that the Azkals is set to play against to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Currently ranked 125th out of 208 international teams, the team has their work cut out for them. “I’m worried about the travels, the distances and the time difference.”
Today, the Azkals are local heroes. Led by coach Thomas Dooley, the team has racked up impressive wins against Bahrain (ranked 112th) and Yemen (ranked 174th) giving the Philippines an undefeated record in the FIFA Qualifiers, their next game against Uzbekistan (ranked 76th) will be the toughest one yet. With more tournament experience under their belts and an infusion of youthful energy and promise in the form of their new young stars, hopes are high for the Philippines’ World Cup bid. Knowing that every game matters, team captain Rob Gier remains optimistic, tweeting, “I think we might surprise a few people this year.” The team has given everyone plenty reasons to believe they will.
For the Azkals, having come so far since 2010, playing their best has become more about bringing home the Philippines its first trophy, it’s become about proving themselves worthy of those kids in the streets who spend every day playing, practicing, and dreaming of their moment under the bright lights.