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Excited but cautious Younghusband & Azkals look to break new ground
by rick olivares
“It never gets old.”
Phil Younghusband quipped on the eve of his fourth Suzuki Cup; the biggest senior men’s national team football competition in Southeast Asia.
His first was that historic 2010 Suzuki Cup where the Philippines barged out of the group stages to make the semi-finals of that competition. Since then, the PMNT has made two more final four berths but have yet to advance to the championship game.
Younghusband missed the 2008 edition because Chelsea, the English club he was playing for at that time, asked him to stay. At that time, the Suzuki Cup wasn’t considered by FIFA as a Category-A tournament.
This 2016 staging on the other hand, will be the first in this biennial tournament where FIFA will award world ranking points to participating nations. Hence, there is more at stake than the regional bragging rights.
“For starters, we’re hosting the group stages and that is massive,” said Younghusband. “Hopefully, people will rally around the team and give us a lift.”
And it is a different Younghusband who will lead the Azkals onto the Philippine Arena pitch in Bocaue, Bulacan, as opposed to the one who took to My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi six years ago. For starters, he will be wearing the captain’s armband and for those accustomed to him playing the forward position, Phil now plays deep, and looks to pass first and not shoot.
Now the most capped Filipino with 82 international matches to go with 42 goals, Younghusband plays a vastly different role nowadays.
“I started when I was barely in my 20s and now I am in my late 20s,” pointed out Younghusband who along with his brother James are the only ones left from that Miracle in Hanoi where the Philippines defeated then-defending champion, Vietnam, 2-nil, that not only changed Philippine football forever but also regional competition. “I am approaching this competition with a different mindset. Now I give more advice. Before I was the one still learning from the likes of Chieffy Caligdong and Aly Borromeo. Now it’s the other way around. My attitude is different. I feel more of a responsibility now. It’s not pressure and I just can’t concentrate on my game but I also have responsibility in helping out the others. Coach (Thomas Dooley) feels that is an attribute that can help the team. It is less about scoring goals but distributing the ball now.”
The changes aren’t only limited to roles. There’s the expectancy about this tournament. “We’ve made the semis in the last three years,” noted the captain. “Now that is no longer good enough. I will say this though -- in 2010, we got by on individual talent although with a lot of team spirit. This year, we have a lot of talent, individual and team-wise, plus better team spirit. You can say, winning, the journey from the last few years, access to better training and facilities, has made us better. I look at the players around me and I have full confidence in them.”
In 2010, for the Azkals’ final tune-up match before the Suzuki Cup, they took a three-hour bus ride outside Bangkok to play a Thai club team. “We had 10-minutes to warm up and we got blasted, 9-0,” laughs Phil at the memory.
Last November 9, the Azkals defeated Kyrgyzstan, 1-nil, at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
Yet the 29-year old Younghusband dispels any suggestion that the Azkals can make short work of other teams. In 2010, maybe Singapore were overconfident going into our match. Maybe, they were already looking beyond to Vietnam and we burned them. I think we as a team or as a football nation aren’t at that point to be looking past opponents. The last thing we need to be is just like they (Singapore) were back then. Every team in the competition is very good. Anyone can beat another on any given night. That is why it is called “the Group of Death.”
The Philippines is bracketed together with Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. The first two are the last two Suzuki Cup winners. Indonesia on the other hand, is always dangerous.”
“People say we cannot take anyone lightly as we are in the Group of Death,” said Younghusband. “That’s good. We want it no less. If we are to achieve something – and that is winning it all -- then we know we worked hard for it.”
The Philippines-Singapore match kicks-off is at 8pm.