Men's National Team

The Huddle PH Year-End Review Part 3: The Azkals

Nine years ago, Chris Greatwich and Phil Younghusband brought football back to life in this country and as the cliché goes, the rest is history.

2019 has been a year full of milestones for Philippine Football, specifically, with our national teams. We now take a look where football took us already as we close out a fantastic decade which started back in Hanoi.

Look Ma, We made it to the Big Leagues

After Phil Younghusband sent the Philippines to an absolute pandemonium for progressing to the AFC Asian Cup finals through his spot-kick conversion against Tajikistan, no one could believe we belong amongst the greatest nations in the continent when it comes to the beautiful game of football.

However, when the Philippines made their debut in the quadrennial tournament against South Korea, we felt, for a moment, that we belong.

The Philippines, once dubbed as the underdogs in Southeast Asia, shared the field with South Korea, the two-time Asian Cup champions and a regular in the FIFA World Cup.

People from outside the Philippines and even some of us knew that a huge defeat was already expected as we were facing a squad who dethroned the 2014 FIFA World Cup champions Germany in a 2-nil victory when they faced each other in the group stages of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

However, the Azkals still went out to the pitch brimming with pride and carrying the hopes of more than a hundred million Filipinos. What else could we lose? It’s our debut in the Asian Cup, it already felt like we’ve achieved more than what’s expected from us.

Surprisingly, we held the mighty Taeguk warriors to a scoreless draw for 67 minutes before Hwang Ui-Jo broke the deadlock. We’ve also prevented them from scoring more, which is what’s expected from them after getting their first goal.

For a moment, we felt like we were better than Germany, at least because of their previous result against South Korea. “We surprised everyone, I think, with the performance tonight,” said Stephan Schröck.

We ended the tournament without a win in the bag but the Azkals made sure they will not leave Dubai empty-handed.

Schröck scored the consolation goal against Kyrgyzstan on the 80th minute of the match in the same manner as he scored the exquisite goal against Uzbekistan back in 2015.

That goal was enough to prove that despite a winless campaign, we continue to rise and there will come a time, that the majority of the countries in Asia the region will fear us.

Towards the country’s qualifying campaign to the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, we started off on the wrong foot but was still able to string a respectable performance against a strong Syrian side.

Keep in mind that we were able to score first on the seventh minute of the match thanks to Javier Patiño which put the Syrian’s back against the wall. The Azkals eventually lost to a scoreline of 5-2 at the Panaad Parks and Stadium but for a moment, we got a taste of how it feels to lead against a top-caliber side like Syria.

Cometh the 10th of October, 2019 at the Panaad Parks and Stadium where majority of the fans watching the match were wearing red and supporting China, the Azkals held the ranked 76th in the world to a historic scoreless draw.

That draw provided us our first point against China in 104 years. Such a historic feat that even China PR’s head coach Marcello Lippi, a FIFA World Cup-winning coach, mentioned in one of his interviews that we area strong side like Syria.

“We could beat weaker opponents like Maldives and Guam, but when we encountered stronger teams like the Philippines and Syria, we could not play our own football,” said Lippi.

These are the results that, despite the scoreline or the outcome, will forever be etched in history.

The end of an Era paving way for the future

At the age of 32, we thought we could still see him for a couple more AFF Suzuki Cup, Asian Cup or even World Cup qualifiers but he felt the time has come for him to hang his boots and give way for our future stars.

Phil Younghusband retired from football on the 19th of November to focus more on his personal life, particularly with building his own family.

Though it saddened many football fans because of all his contributions to the sport itself, only Phil himself can tell when the time is right to leave the limelight.

Amassing a total of 52 goals in 108 matches, as what my good friend Kevin Estrada said in one of our appearance in Radyo Pilipinas 2’s Football Connection, “Phil Younghusband is the Robert Jaworski of Philippine Football.”

Now we don’t want to offend the basketball fans out there reading this but we get what he said.

Phil was there during the renaissance of Philippine Football and he never turned down the call of the motherland.

Apart from the goal he scored during the Miracle in Hanoi, his half-century goal against Tajikistan could well be the defining moment for Phil.

All that we can say now is, Phil, thank you for what you’ve done for the country and enjoy your retirement. We wish you all the best and we hope to see you playing a different role for the Azkals in the future.

The year of the Alpha Male

Standing at five-foot-seven and weighing 149 pounds, he hails from Schweinfurt, Germany. Representing the Philippines, Stephan “The Alpha Male” Schröck.

If he would’ve pursued his career in boxing, that should be his nickname as he enters the ring. However, God had other plans for him and he just followed his instructions.

From the moment he wore the national kit, it was a match made in heaven. He introduced himself by scoring a rocket of a goal against powerhouse Kuwait at the historic Rizal Memorial Stadium which sent the house rocking.

Fast forward to 2019, which we can call the year of the Alpha Male, Schröcky rose from having the Bad Boy status to being the team captain of all the squad he has played in and because of his attitude towards the game, he has led both the national team and his club Ceres-Negros FC to greater heights this year.

Starting off with Ceres-Negros FC, he helped his side overcome the monster of Gelora Bung Karno as they faced the mighty Persija Jakarta. Trailing via two goals after 12 minutes into the second half of the match, Schröcky and his teammates clawed their way back into the match.

Miguel Tanton was the first one to bring the hopes back for the busmen after his free kick went into past the goalkeeper on the 70th minute.

With only 20 minutes remaining to salvage a point away from home, Schröck flipped the switched after his assist to Bienvenido Marañon was headed into the back of the net on the 85th minute.

They completed the comeback in the dying minutes of the match as he skewered another gorgeous cross inside the box which was then tapped home by Mike Ott and silenced the Persija Jakarta faithful.

Despite not scoring in that match, Schröck showed how pivotal he can be when his side needs him.

All throughout the Philippines Football League 2019 season, the busmen were in the driver seat and in no way were dethroned from first place. They then proceeded to finish the season without any single defeat in their record making them the first Invincibles of Philippine club football.

At the end of the season, Schröck has been awarded the Golden Ball due to his efforts to steer his side to its monumental three-peat in the league.

Before departing for his international duties, the Alpha Male left a memorable piece of brilliance for the busmen as he led his side to a 4-3 victory over Stallion Laguna FC in the semifinals of the 2019 Copa Paulino Alcantara.

They were down by two goals to nil in the first 15 minutes of the match but they knew what’s at stake at they just pushed for the win. On the 18th minute of the match, Schröcky made a blistering run past the defenders before slotting it past Nelson Gasic. Ott would then score the leveler for the busmen on the 29th minute.

The league champions got the go-ahead goal on the 69th minute thanks to you-know-who before Ott punched his brace on the 77th minute to put the game to bed.

Though Stallion Laguna would get another goal on the 85th minute thanks to Janjan Melliza, it was not enough to tarnish the win-loss-draw record of the busmen this season.

Of course, we all know what happened, Ceres-Negros FC went on to win against Kaya FC-Iloilo via two goals to one and secured the domestic cup double, a feat that has not been done by any club since 2016 when Global FC secured the UFL league and cup titles.

Because of his contributions for his club and country, he was named among the best XI of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) cementing his position as one of the legends of Philippine Football.

Now, talking about his contribution to the national team, he wore the captain’s armband in their 2019 AFC Asian Cup campaign where, despite having a winless journey, they’ve garnered the respect of powerhouse nation South Korea and even scoring our first goal in the tournament thanks to the Alpha Male.

Throughout their campaign in the joint 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, he’s worked harder than ever and contributed to the country’s bid for the next round of the competition.

So far, he have a goal to his name and has been involved in as many goal-scoring chances. In their match against China at the Panaad Parks and Stadium, he pestered the defensive line of the mighty dragons as well as helped is side hold on to a scoreless draw.

His biggest contribution to the Philippine National Football Team was taking on the role as the leader/father of our U-22 squad.

Coach Goran Milejovic asked for Schröcky’s services for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games and he didn’t even flinch and he accepted the role.

For these kids, Schröck is an idol more than a father figure as everyone in this squad looked up to him and wanted to emulate what he has done for the country so far.

It has been a shaky start for the Young Azkals as they had to rely on a late equalizer courtesy of Dennis Chung against Cambodia and had to endure a tough 2-1 defeat against Myanmar.

However, in their match against Malaysia, an all-important one as they need to win in order to keep their hopes alive in the SEA Games, scheduled on the 29th of November 2019, 28 years after the historic one-nil victory of the Philippines over Malaysia in the 1991 edition of the games, Schröck scored from a corner kick and sent over 6,500 fans in delirium.

In this game, the Alpha Male showed the kids how it’s done and gave them the morale boost they need heading into their final group stage match against Timor Leste.

“These are all my kids in the U-22, so I’m very happy that I could help them today,” said Schröck after that tremendous performance.

Though they would exit in the group stages due to goal difference, it was still a memorable SEA Games stint for the boys who played alongside the country’s best player as of the moment. We’ll be looking forward to the day we meet his successor.

The Greatest SEA Games Performance in… Forever

In ages, the Philippines has yet to win a medal in the biennial tournament in terms of football. We might have a couple of close calls, but over the last decade, as painful as it is to say, we’ve been the laughing stock in the region when it comes to our age-group teams.

However, 2019 SEA Games was a different story. This time, we had finesse, we can control the ball, and we can threaten the opposition’s defence.

As part of the build-up to the 2019 SEA Games, the Philippines had participated in a couple of U-22 tournaments but went home winless.

This year, the U-22s had a longer period of prep time heading into the tournament. They also had the privilege of participating in the 2019 Copa Paulino Alcantara as a guest team and made it difficult for Mendiola FC 1991 and Ceres-Negros FC to progress to the knockout stages.

As they geared up for the biennial tournament, the Young Azkals kicked off their CoPA campaign with a one-nil victory over Green Archers United.

They then made it difficult for Ceres-Negros FC in their match-up when Yrik Gallantes scored the opener on the 30th minute. If not for the equalizer from Dylan De Bruycker on the 61st minute and the late winner from Robert Lopez Mendy on the 86th minute, they might’ve gotten a longer time in bonding among the team.

Nevertheless, the tournament somehow helped them shake off the jitters heading into the opening fixture against Cambodia.

Battling the first game jitters can be really difficult and it was evident as the young Azkals conceded a goal on the 41st minute of the match against Cambodia.

It was an uphill climb but towards the end of the match, Dennis Chung was summoned by coach Milejovic and he duly paid off the gamble as he nailed the late equalizer on the 91st minute.

In their next match against Myanmar, the parity between the two was quite visible as Myanmar made it difficult for the Philippines to win the ball.

On the 17th minute, Aung Kaung Mann scored the opener but Justin Baas had other plans before heading into half-time.

The 19-year old AZ Aalkmar academy standout blasted a rocket on the final minute of the first half to equalize.

Unfortunately, the Philippines would concede another goal on the 79th minute and failed to equalize after numerous attempt on goal.

Serving as a do-or-die match, the Philippines U-22 went out the field with one thing in mind, a win against Malaysia to give them a fighting chance for the semis and at the same time, to replicate what happened 28 years ago when the Philippines through Norman Fegidero, won against Malaysia during the 1991 SEA Games.

The boys laid it all out on the pitch, kitchen sink included and their skipper, Schröck finished the job with a goal on the 74th minute. A match that will forever serve as a springboard for our age-group squads in their quest for regional… No… world domination.

Should we continue to give them the attention they need as well as the resources, eventually, we’ll get there.

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