THE past year seemed the toughest for the Philippine football in recent memory, especially for the Azkals.

On the pitch, the men’s team only managed two wins in eight competitive games, with one draw.

The numbers aren’t impressive on paper.

But to put things in the proper perspective, the Azkals lost to countries ranked dozens of places higher in the two tournaments the team joined.

One was the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in January and the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers second round held year-round during the Fifa window for international matches.

The Azkals lost all Asian Cup group stage matches to South Korea (1-0), Kyrgyzstan (3-1) and China (2-0), and yet their spirited performance despite being outclassed didn’t leave fans too distraught.

In the World Cup Qualifiers, the Azkals simply started on the wrong foot with a 2-5 loss to Syria in Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City on Sept. 5.

The Azkals bounced back five days later with an expected win over Guam, 4-1.

But it was the home match against China a month later that revealed how far the Azkals have progressed over the last decade.

The Azkals drew China, 0-0, in a competitive match, after decades of consistently losing—often badly—to the Asian powerhouse (China is currently ranked ninth in the Asian region).

The last time the Philippines won against China was in May 1919, roughly a hundred years ago.

After that, the team lost 15 consecutive games to the Chinese, until that glorious draw in Oct. 15 in Bacolod. That, in my book, marks progress.

After edging the Maldives 2-1, the Azkals faced Syria anew in foreign soil. This time, the Syrians managed to win only by a 1-0 scoreline. More progress, little by little.

The Azkals return to World Cup Qualifying action on March 26 against Guam in Manila, then face China anew on June 4 in an away match, before wrapping up its campaign against the Maldives on June 9 in Bacolod.

Anything can still happen in Group A, which means there’s much to look forward to in the first half of 2020 for the Azkals.

In the second half, there’s the high-intensity AFF Suzuki Cup slated from Nov. 23 to Dec. 31. But let’s leave that for another story.