IN front of a crowd of 2,300 at the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium, Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, Timor-Leste emerged triumphant even after a 1-0 loss to the hosts. The scoreline meant Timor-Leste took the last slot in Group B of the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 after winning the first leg 3-1 at “home” in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Waiting for Timor-Leste in Group B this November are four teams whose skill levels are way above Brunei’s: Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. That list should give the default role as the group’s doormats, a title that the Philippine Azkals once held. Could Timor-Leste care less? Hardly, considering that this is only the second time the young nation has qualified for the AFF Championship. The last time was more than a decade ago: in 2004.
Participating in this year’s edition of the biennial tournament should mean everything to the Timor-Leste team, stakeholders and fans. They can hope to scalp some heads, but that would be unlikely.
Not so long ago, the Azkals were standing in Timor’s shoes. The Philippines’ doormat status came to an end in 2010 during the miracle of Hanoi, where they made it to the semifinals.
The Azkals never looked back, making three successive semifinals appearances--2010, 2012 and 2014. From the whipping boys of Southeast Asia, the Philippines now struck fear in the hearts of its Southeast Asian rivals, and the 2016 Suzuki Cup was the Azkals’ time to shine. Or so we thought.
Under Coach Thomas Dooley and with a solid lineup that included Philip Younghusband, Stephan Schrock, Amani Aguinaldo, and Mike and Manuel Ott, much was expected of the team in 2016, not to mention the Philippines were co-hosts alongside Myanmar. But to the fans’ horror, the Azkals failed to qualify for the knockout rounds.
The Azkals didn’t win a match, lost one and drew two. Worse, they scored only two goals. Against Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, no one could pull the trigger when needed. The Philippines’ only consolation is that it fought tooth and nail against eventual finalists Indonesia and Thailand, which ended up champions.
Although it’s not that apparent, the Azkals’ poor performance in the 2016 Suzuki Cup, alongside lackluster campaigns in Asia and World Cup qualifiers, contributed greatly to football’s decline in the country.
The Azkals’ historic qualification in the Asian Cup 2019 was a shot in the arm for the ailing sport in the country. And while everyone is excited for the team’s first stint in the Asian Cup this January in the United Arab Emirates, another tournament of significance must not be overlooked.
And it’s just less than two months away: the 2018 Suzuki Cup kicks off on Nov. 8 with a new home-and-away round robin format in the group stage. Panaad Stadium in Bacolod will serve as home stadium. Interestingly, the Philippines’ Group B is identical to that of the 2016 edition, but with Timor-Leste joining the fray.
There are plenty of reasons the Philippines must defeat Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Timor-Leste in Group B of the Suzuki Cup. And the regional tournament serving as a mere warm-up to the Azkals’ 2019 Asian Cup campaign is not one of them.
September 20, 2018
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