Challenge Accepted: New Philippine Football Coach Tom Saintfiet Is Aiming High

When it comes to turning around struggling football programs, new Philippine Football Coach Tom Saintfiet isn’t one to say no.

Before agreeing to become the latest in a string of foreign coaches to handle the Philippine men’s national football team (a.k.a. The Athletes Formerly Known as the Azkals), Tom Saintfiet was coach of the national team of Gambia, a tiny African nation of around two million people and hardly a continental powerhouse, from 2018 to early 2024.

Defying the odds, he led the Scorpions to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals, their best result ever in the quadrennial meet and the first time they qualified for it. Gambia again qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations tournament proper earlier this year, and while this time they failed to get out of the group stage, back-to-back tournament appearances were still a highwater mark in the country’s football program.

Now, Tom Saintfiet is hoping to weave his magic once more, this time for the Philippines, which qualified for the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 but has since seen a steady decline in its international fortunes. It will be his job to reverse the decline and regain the momentum the sport enjoyed during its renaissance in the 2010s.

A ‘new task’

Tom Saintfiet says he has been “following Philippine football for almost 10 years or more than 10 years,” and having taken Gambia as far as he could, he wanted a new challenge.

“I was looking for a new task, an ambitious task to write history somewhere,” Saintfiet told a group of local media after a training session Friday afternoon. “And I really believe that with this federation, we can build something and achieve our goal of going to the Asian Cup in 2027. And in the long term, going to the World Cup.”

Saintfiet’s reasoning is simple: if he could put together a competitive football team from a population of two million, what more one with 115 million?

“If you look at Gambia, we had two million people in Gambia. Here we have about 56 times more or something like that. So the choice is bigger. I use naturally my experience and I use my know-how but on the other side I have to learn and adapt every time to a new situation.”

Saintfiet kicked off his era by applying here what worked for him in Gambia, where almost every local player who had at least one international cap eventually signed with a team in Europe. He’s set up a series of training camps for local-based players to get a feel of the talent level with the end goal of giving some of these players international exposure starting with the March 21 and 26 FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifiers matches against powerhouse Iraq.

“When I started, naturally, I heard that the foreign-based players always had priority. I understand that when you’re a professional in Europe, or in Southeast Asia, in a bigger league…I will not lie, the majority of my players will be professionals in the bigger leagues.

“But on the other side, you have to prepare these boys for the moment, the chance to be there. And I can guarantee you that from this group, four to five people will be in Iraq with us, traveling with us. And so maybe they’ll get some game time because we have to prepare them for the future.”

Doing his homework

Before Tom Saintfiet was formally introduced by the Philippine Football Federation in a press conference last week, he hopped around the metropolis and watched as many local football matches as he could. He spent a few days, in particular, catching the UAAP men’s football fixtures in UP Diliman, and what he’s seen so far has alleviated some of his initial concerns.

“There’s talent, there are quality players,” he said. “I was a little bit worried when people said, ‘We’re going to invite university players (to the training camp),’ but I have to be honest. University players have similar level as the (Philippines Football League) players and the guys who played in the past abroad.

“There’s so much quality I saw the last days, I think four or five university matches. And I saw Taguig, Manila Diggers, and Kaya playing friendly games so I tried to get used to the league and I’m positively impressed with the quality of players we have here.”

It’s apparent that developing local talent is a key part of Saintfiet’s vision, as he plans to organize more local camps to identify the players that can step up right away and be ready to go for the AFF Mitsubishi Cup later this year.

“We want to repeat this more, these camps, so that the players get confidence so that they get to know me and when we go to Mitsubishi Cup where probably the majority of the players will be from here or in the region are much better prepared,” he said. “I don’t want to throw them in the deep end when I need them. I want to prepare them for the moment they are there.”

Tough assignment

But first things first. There is the matter of playing 59th-ranked Iraq twice later this month with the Philippines’ 2026 FIFA World Cup aspirations on the line. The Lions of Mesopotamia hammered Indonesia, 5-1, and fended off Vietnam, 1-0, in the November window. In contrast, the Philippines lost to Vietnam, 0-2, and drew with Indonesia, 1-1. Long story short, this will be a formidable first assignment for Saintfiet.

“Naturally, we would like to stay as much as possible in the running for the World Cup 2026,” he said. “It’s sad that we had already played two home games against Indonesia and Vietnam, where we got only one point. But everything is still possible. We are only out when we are 100% out. And for me, this task, I was really looking for a task. This is pushing me to new limits in a new environment.”

Still, Saintfiet is level-headed enough to know the magnitude of the task set before him.

“I think that that will be for sure the most difficult match. Iraq is a powerhouse in Asian football. I think personally that Iraq will go to the World Cup (in 2026).

“Iraq is a football nation. Everyone loves football. They have the advantage compared to the other Gulf and Arab countries. They are physically more the European style, they have bigger bodies, they have muscled guys, they play always for a full house, beautiful infrastructure, and accommodation.

“This is a football country, a giant in Asian football. But I love to play against giants. A game is not lost before you played it and we will need motivated guys who are ready to play disciplined. I think if we could play a draw in Iraq would be fantastic, and after that, we will see what we can do here.”

Banner image from PFF.

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