THE 2018 Fifa World Cup seems like a distant memory, and sometimes I need a double take as to who lifted the trophy. (Ah, yes, France, of course.) But if you think that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is even more distant, don’t fret: 2019 actually marks the start of World Cup qualifying matches. And that means the Azkals will have another shot—a long one—at making a dream World Cup appearance.
I say it’s a long shot for a number of reasons. As much as we want to see our team stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s best national football teams, the level of competition remains exceedingly high. Believe in the impossible all we want but the Azkals have yet to reach a level that can consistently compete in the upper echelons of football.
Proof of this is the team’s most recent performances. Although I wouldn’t call it dismal, much work needs to be done with the team, something that even a high-caliber coach like Sven-Goran Eriksson can’t fix after just a few games.
The Azkals’ last six matches under Eriksson were all losses. After starting on a bright note with two wins and two draws in the group stage of the AFF Suzuki Cup in November, the Azkals closed the year with three straight losses all against Vietnam: two Suzuki Cup semifinals matches and one friendly in preparation for the Asian Cup.
Three more straight losses against much stronger teams in the AFC Asian Cup last January capped Eriksson’s stint with the Azkals: 1-0 to South Korea, 3-0 to China and 3-1 to Kyrgyzstan.
The Suzuki Cup and Asian Cup results were a reality check for everyone. In contrast, our Southeast Asian neighbors fared much better: Thailand advanced to the Round of 16 but losing to Philippines tormentor China, while Vietnam made it as far as the quarterfinals, losing only by one-goal to eventual runners-up Japan.
And yet despite the results, there are positives to be gleaned from these setbacks. While their inability to score and lapses in concentration in defense did them in, the Azkals had their moments against Asian behemoths South Korea and China. The bloodbath didn’t happen as some pundits prophesied.
The team’s faults and weaknesses aren’t irreparable, ones that can be addressed one match at a time. We hope that Eriksson does keep in touch as consultant for the team as reported, although the last time we heard, he’s interested in taking the helm of the Indian squad.
With Eriksson to consult or not, the Azkals need to regroup in preparation for the World Cup 2022 qualifiers that start this June among 46 AFC-affiliated nations. Actually, the Azkals’ road to Qatar already began with a weeklong camp in Thailand last week. For sure, friendlies would be slated soon.
One question worth asking though is which teams the Philippines should face in friendlies. Fans would love to see the Azkals go up against stronger, top-tier teams, and making such friendlies possible would keep interest in the team high in the buildup leading to the World Cup qualifying matches.
Having given China and South Korea problems in the Asian Cup last January, the Azkals can give the same teams – throw Japan into the mix – friendlies they wouldn’t forget.