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Wed 23 May 2018

The Azkals’ road to glory: The lean seasons (Part 3)

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For the past eight years, football had a resurgence in the Philippines, thanks to the monumental achievements of the Philippine Azkals, which inspired a generation of young footballers and fans in this basketball-crazy country. Reminisce eight years of glory by your Azkals in this four-part series brought to you by Fullcourtfresh.com.

STILL BALLING: The Azkals were still winning despite decline in home game attendance.

The hopes were high for the Azkals to win the 2012 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup, after a string of sensational victories against many Asian countries. But the disappointing showdown against Singapore, 0-1 aggregate, took the team to a downward turn.

It was not as if the next three years for the Azkals were bad, it was just that they seemed to just have been a novelty after all, despite winning the majority of their succeeding games. Home game attendance declined and these were the years of several player movements, as traditional fan favorites (Chieffy Caligdong, Ian Araneta, Aly Borromeo, Jason de Jong, and, even James Younghusband) were replaced by newer, less-known ones. Meanwhile, Neil Etheridge and Stephan Schrock could not commit in all games as their schedules with their European clubs usually conflicted the Azkals’ schedule.

 

HAIL TO THE CHIEF: Chieffy Caligdong, the face of “full-bred” Azkals, officially retires as Azkal during their friendly against Cambodia in November 2014. Other fan favorite Azkals who retired during those times were Ilonggo comrade Ian Araneta, defenders Anton del Rosario and Rob Gier, and midfielder Aly Borromeo. (Photo by Vyn Radovan)

Yet in March 2013, the Azkals dominated the qualifier for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. The Azkals massacred Cambodia, 8-0, and took revenge against Turkmenistan, 1-0, in Manila. However, the usual crowd of 15,000 was trimmed to half its size. Phil Younghusband remained to be the star of the team and was at his peak, scoring five goals in those two games.

The Azkals then won its second straight Peace Cup in Bacolod in October, though it was marked by a 1-2 loss to Chinese Taipei.

With new players coming in—the likes of Manny Ott, Daisuke Sato, and Amani Aguinaldo—the Philippine Football Federation hired former U.S. team captain Thomas Dooley as the new head coach of the Azkals in 2014.

The team then went to the Maldives in May for the Challenge Cup, where they won against Laos and Turkmenistan with identical 2-0 scores after a scoreless draw against Afghanistan in the group stages.

New Filipino heroes were born in the final staging of the Challenge Cup: forward Patrick Reichelt, the Azkals’ secondary forward who scored two goals in the tournament , and defender extraordinaire Simone Rota, an abandoned Filipino child adopted and raised in Italy, who made life of the opposing wingers miserable in that tournament.

Rota, who returned to the Philippines to play football in 2013, scored his first goal on his second cap—a rebound off a Stephan Schrock miss—against Laos. Reichelt then finished the Laotians with a header. He would also slay the Turkmen the next game with a sensational goal off a flying kick.

The lives of the two proud Filipinos seemed to be intertwined as both suffered ACL tears in 2016, crippling the Azkals who were also hobbled with health issues from Phil Younghusband during the Second Round of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. Reichelt and Rota would eventually return in time for the Third Round of said tournament, playing pivotal roles in the Azkals victory over Tajikistan in March 2018 that sent the Azkals to the 2019 Asian Cup. Rota seemed to have never missed a step as a defensive winger while Reichelt’s entry was timely as he was the one who absorbed the crucial Tajik foul that sent Younghusband to the penalty box to score the winning goal.

After cruising through the 2014 Challenge Cup semifinals, the old, exciting Azkals returned to form against the Maldives. While the home team was ranked much lower than the visitors, it was a hard-fought one for the Azkals that necessitated additional extended time, with Hanoi heroes Phil Younghusband, the passer, and Chris Greatwich, the goal scorer conspiring in scoring the winning goal at the 104th minute for a 3-2 win to send the Philippines on the cusp of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, entering their first finals in Challenge Cup history.

However, the Challenge Cup finals was heartbreaking, with the Azkals losing 0-1 against Palestine, who have won what would have been the final staging of the Challenge Cup. The dagger came from Ashraf Numan Al-Fawaghra, Palestine’s best player, whose beautiful free kick seamlessly curved toward the goal at the 57th minute. Throughout the game, the Palestinians played rough defense, aware of the Azkals’ exhaustion as a result of the Maldives match and this frustrated the Azkals’ bid for an Asian Cup ticket. With that, Palestine wound up their own underdog narrative, as the oppressed nation entered their maiden Asian Cup in 2015.

BURMESE CONQUEST: Myanmar wins the 2014 Philippine Peace Cup, thumping the Azkals in the finals, 3-2 (a.e.t.). This was the first and only loss of the Azkals in the Peace Cup after winning in 2013 and 2012.

From a very promising campaign, the retooled Azkals crashed on ground zero. Disappointments ensued after the Challenge Cup. For the first time, the Azkals lost the Philippine Peace Cup. In the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, Vietnam finally avenged their losses against the Philippines, 3-1, even if the latter scored eight goals in their first two games against weaker teams. And for the third straight Suzuki Cup semis, the Azkals failed to score a single goal, losing to Thailand, 0-0 (in Manila) and 0-3 (in Bangkok).

Missing the Asian Cup bus, the Azkals had to start from scratch again for the 2019 edition.

 

 



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