This appears in the Sunday July 31, 2011 edition of the Business Mirror.
Points to ponder
by rick olivares photo by roy domingo
Over a lunch of lemon chicken and pasta Bolognese, the Philippine Men’s Football National Team looked and sounded loose and easy but not in a boisterous manner. The rain outside was pouring yet the Filipinos were oblivious to the downpour that caused many to wonder whether the match versus Kuwait would push through. The players signed some souvenir shirts and magazines after lunch before heading over to their rooms to rest.
Before the team left for the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium, the players discussed the task at hand. Could they overhaul the three-goal lead of Kuwait? They had skipper Aly Borromeo and midfielder Stephan Schrock back. They knew they had the home crowd in their corner. And maybe, just maybe the rain that could once more work in their favor.
They considered the possibilities – that winning the match was more within reach than qualifying for the next round of the Asian Qualifiers of the 2014 World Cup. The optimum word was to try. To go all out and leave it on the floor. The coaching staff and management urged them to do their best win or lose not simply for themselves but for the people watching and for the country.
That thought alone made the burden somewhat easier.
Four hours later, after the Azkals absorbed a 2-1 setback to Kuwait that ended their World Cup dreams, the team sat inside the dugout quiet and lost in their thoughts. Disappointment was written all over their faces. Not much was said as they had to carefully measure their thoughts and the raw emotion that pervaded the room. “We needed the space for ourselves,” Manuel Ott would later say. “We needed to think about what happened and what’s next.”
Space, pace and possession obsession
What happened was Kuwait, out of their desert element, exposed the Azkals’ lack of experience and on-field chemistry. For all the talk about the Kuwaitis poor defense, the Filipinos were reduced to thunder strikes from outside.
There were earlier musings on how the visitors would fare in the rain. Yet for much of the first half, Al Azraq went back to their old ways of swarming an opposing player to dispossess him of the ball. They once more ran their attack from the left flank that saw them get off eight attempts (to the Philippines’ five) in the first half alone.
But it was the home side that struck first after Stephan Schrock, showing why he is perhaps the team’s biggest impact player, saw his cracker of a shot beat Al Azraq goal keeper Nawaf Al Khaldi who repeatedly engaged Philippine counterpart Neil Etheridge in a match of, “can you stop this?”
Come the second half, and ironically a man down after Fahed El Ebrahim was cautioned for a second time in the match, Kuwait showed better composure.
In the 63rd minute, after Ray Jonsson was whistled for a foul, midfielder Jarah Al Ateeqi, instead of sending the ball forward following a free kick, chose to send it back to defender Mesad Neda who had a better view of the defense. Neda waited for a moment for the Philippines’ defense to open up as he drew the attention of Angel Guirado and Phil Younghusband who had gone back to defend. The Kuwaiti defender sent a long ball into the Philippines’ box that central back Rob Gier headed away.
Only Al Azraq’s Waleed Ali retrieved the ball and with one touch sent it forward to striker Yousef Naser who took one dribble to break free of the Azkals holding midfielder Manny Ott before blasting a shot from some 20 yards out to beat a flailing Etheridge.
Twenty-two minutes later with Kuwait on a quick counter, Ali showed breathtaking pace as he slalomed through four defenders, took a return forward pass from line mate Saleh Al Sheikh without missing a beat, side-stepped Etheridge before he poked it home towards an empty net despite Jonsson giving futile chase.
Those were carefully measured strides – four to beat the middle third and four more to blow past the defending third – before the score. Schrock’s first international goal was just as similar. He snared the loose ball, took one dribble and fired away.
It’s about quality possession, short and one touch passing with the objective of moving forward then putting on a sudden burst of pace for a clinical finish. And if one cannot look at Kuwait’s deconstruction of our World Cup dreams, one should take a look at Argentina’s incredible 25-pass possession against Serbia and Montenegro in the 2006 World Cup that was capped by an exquisite Hernan Crespo backheel to Esteban Cambiasso for a goal.
The stat sheet may record Cambiasso as the goal scorer but truly, that belongs to every single Argentine who passed that ball and preserved possession.
The dip in the rankings
Days after the 3-nil loss in Kuwait City, the Philippines fell from No. 152 in FIFA’s rankings to No. 155. Kuwait in the meantime went up by seven notches (No. 102 to No. 95).
After the 2006 World Cup, FIFA introduced a new formula for coming up with its rankings after receiving much criticism over the standings heading into football’s biggest event in Germany. They’ve introduced a simpler formula: where changes include the dropping of home and away matches as well as the corresponding goals scored and conceded. The factors that FIFA takes into account include match results, match status, opposition strength, and regional strength. Matches from the previous four years are also considered with more weight given to the most recently played ones.
While the Philippines blitzed through Sri Lanka 4-0 at home, the 1-1 draw in Colombo and the 3-0 loss in Kuwait City were taken into consideration. The 2-1 home loss where the Philippines was eliminated from World Cup contention, however, was not yet included in the tabulations.
The four Asian Qualifying World Cup matches will carry much more weight than the AFC Challenge Cup games where the Philippines has advanced to the next stage of the tournament.
“The Philippines has a good team,” noted Kuwait coach Goran Tefugdzic. “If the Philippines sticks to its program and supports its team it will get better.”
Kuwait assistant Abdulaziz Hamad added that the goals must be realistic. “Start with your region then begin to move forward in other competitions. But there must be patience. It takes years – two years, four years, sometimes even a decade or more. We made the World Cup in 1982 and it’s only now where we are beginning to go forward again. And football is our national sport.”
“We are a work in progress,” summed up Philippine head coach Hans Michael Weiss.
National Team manager Dan Palami, whose goal is to see the Philippines rise to the #120s in the FIFA rankings remained undaunted and echoed Weiss’ statement. “It remains doable and our success in this span of time confirms that we are doing something right.”
With 2011 into the second half, the focus shifts to the Under-23 team where many of the country’s best young players culled from the two-month summer tournament could possibly be competing in the Long Teng Cup in Taiwan this September in preparation for the Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia this November.
The team which will also be coached by Weiss and managed by the indefatigable Palami, could possibly feature some of the younger and eligible players from the seniors team but at this point, their inclusion also depends on their availability.
Those eligible include goalkeepers Neil Etheridge and Paolo Pascual as well as midfielders Jason de Jong and Patrick Hinrichsen. Forward Angel Guirado’s younger brother is said to be trying out for the team some time in the near future.
There were concerns about Weiss’ not making proper use of his substitutions during the game and the German gaffer defended his position by saying that he needs more quality and experienced players.
Expect the team to scour for more talent as its begins its massive build up for next year’s Suzuki Cup where the Philippines has already qualified for the group stage.
Hope springs eternal
Hours after being eliminated by Kuwait, the team was feted a dinner by the Philippine Football Federation at the Diamond Hotel. The mood was celebratory and any traces of dejection quickly dissipated. After all, they talked about it much earlier and as long as they gave it all they’ve got then they can take the match’s outcome.
Even after dinner, the supporters and fans lingered while the players went off to private parties or other get-togethers. Yet everywhere they went there was the feeling that they were the victors who were moving on.
“I think people understand that we have something good going on here and that this is a long process,” said striker Phil Younghusband as he left the hotel early in the morning to go home in Alabang. “Some things you have to take in stride and not let them get you down because the ultimate mission is far from over.”
“We left it all out on the field yet we came up short,” said Gier. “But it was nice to see that the people appreciate all our efforts. It was heartwarming.”
“Now that gave us something to think about,” summed up a smiling Ott. “And that gives us the inspiration to do better next time.”
25 passes by Argentina against Serbia & Montenegro
Juergen Klinsmann appointed new US head coach! Good move.