Thoughts On A Rough Week For The Philippine Men’s National Football Team

Losses to Vietnam and Indonesia have riled up Filipino football fans. But we must keep the faith when it comes to the PMNFT.

The Philippines exited from World Cup Qualifying last June 6, falling to Vietnam 3-2 in Hanoi. Then last Tuesday succumbed to Indonesia in the non-bearing final game of the stage 2-0.

Indonesia had so much more to play for, as the three points ensured they would proceed to the next phase of qualifications. Pinoy football fans hoped that our side, despite having been eliminated, would still put up a good fight. But Tom Saintfiet’s side were relegated to mostly defending, and we lost our fifth game out of six outings in this qualifying segment.

Amongst the ashes of this setback, here are my musings.

Filipino football fans need a reality check

All throughout this campaign I have read my fair share of bellyaching from local fans on Facebook. One guy was dismayed at a recent loss and basically asked “until when will we be in a learning phase, and when can we start winning?”

Another commenter proposed a dedicated national team that trains together all-year round and without players who play in leagues. Many fans wanted this player starting over that, or getting rid of the coach. One fan even seemed to think that the team should just disband.

My quick responses to these thoughts. The learning phase lasts forever in football. For everyone, even the best clubs and national teams. It’s like, um, life. If you cannot take it, don’t be a fan.

Leagues are the lifeblood of football all over the world. A dedicated national team, which has been tried in basketball, would never work in football. The players need weekly battles in a league to stay sharp. Five or six FIFA windows of play a year will not cut it. Which is why this approach is unheard of in modern football.

Armchair coaches who make decisions on players cannot possibly have a better view than coaches who see their players up close. And Tom Saintfiet has a good CV. He deserves a chance, despite four losses out of four.

Filipino football fans have to adjust expectations and learn to have the patience of Job. For the Philippines to be competitive beyond ASEAN in football, even with overseas-born players, is a 10, 20, maybe even 30-year project.

What we seem to lack most is funding. Our neighbors are wealthier than us and have football in their blood. Leagues in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand have massive followings, and are capable of generating income that supports high-quality players. Compare that with the Philippines, where the only thing that really makes money are the football academies and schools for well-heeled young players. The league, national teams, and university competitions, to my knowledge, are not (yet) money-making machines. Until everything is more sustainable, we will have difficulty competing with the likes of Indonesia, whose federation is led by Erick Thohir, a billionaire who used to own Inter Milan. Imagine the resources he could pull into their national team program.

Why have we fallen behind the likes of Indonesia? One of the big reasons is that they too have drawn on their diaspora to strengthen their squad. No less than seven overseas-born Indonesians started on Tuesday night. Thom Haye, a Dutch-Indonesian, played for the Netherlands from U15 all the way up to U21 level and now suits up for Herenveen in the Eredivisie, the top-tier of the Dutch footballing pyramid. He scored a wicked long-range goal in the first half. None of our players are playing in a league as strong as his.

It’s not that we have been lagging behind, it’s that our fellow ASEAN nations are also making the right moves and raising the bar all the time.

Funding is obviously linked to the lack of a telecast or official stream for the June 11 game against Indonesia. I was as disappointed as anyone when I heard the news that we wouldn’t be able to watch the game live. But I get it.

Broadcast rights for World Cup qualifiers are not cheap. In football-mad countries federations and TV networks will happily pay the rights fees because they know they can recoup the investment in advertising. Not the case in the Philippines, where the Azkals fever of the early tens has waned, meaning less viewership. So the federation must have balked at the stiff price to pay for the match rights, especially since the team was already out of the running. Maybe better to save the millions of pesos and instead pump it into youth development.

So basically, the Philippines’ football ecosystem is not yet there for a deep run in World Cup qualifying. We have to accept that and expect less, as bitter as that seems. And if you can’t take the losing, ask yourself this question: are you a patriotic Filipino football fan, or a glory hunter who only supports a team if it wins?

The guys running the national team program are sincere and passionate football folks. I believe that with their continued hard work, we can go places. We must be more patient than we have ever been.

We got schooled by a Vietnam side with high football IQ and great fundamentals

Two moments stood out for me in the tough loss against Vietnam in Hanoi. (Apart from the great goals by Kevin Ingreso and Patrick Reichelt, of course.)

Vietnam’s go-ahead second goal happened after right back Santi Rublico was injured and needed medical attention on the sideline. OJ Porteria had just come on for someone else and was pressed into service at right back to cover for Rublico. Porteria is an amazing player, but not usually a right back. Vietnam pounced on the chaos of the moment, spotting Porteria out of position. They built up from their left flank and capitalized brilliantly with a pinpoint cross that Tien Linh Nguyen turned into the goal for 2-1. They did all this in a matter of seconds. Quick thinking did the trick.

Then with the game tied 2-2 and deep in stoppage time Tuan Hai Pham hoofed in the winner off a rebound off a Neil Etheridge parry of a long shot. It might seem like a stroke of luck for the Vietnamese. But if you look closely at the footage, even before the initial shot is taken, Pham is making his move towards Neil, anticipating a rebound. It was great instincts from the goalscorer. That’s how many “basurero” strikers get their goals.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” said ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky. Same concept in football.

Don’t lose hope because help is on the way

PMNFT team manager Freddy Gonzalez has informed me that a passel of new players is coming for the September FIFA window. This international break will likely mean a pair of friendlies for the Philippines in preparation for the ASEAN Championship (née the Suzuki Cup) in November and December.

You may long for the days when it was always Neil in goal, Phil up top, James out wide, Chieffy on the left, and Rob Gier in central defense. But those days are gone. The revolving door in the national team has been spinning for quite a while now and it won’t stop soon. The talent pool of Filipino heritage players from every corner of the world is big, and ripe for the harvest. This may make it hard for fans to get familiar with the players, but it will jack up competition for roster spots. I can’t wait to see what the batch in September can bring. Many of the debutantes in June impressed, especially Adrian Uglevik in defense, and Zico Bailey and Michael Baldisimo in the center of the park.

Gonzalez tells me Scandinavian leagues often have an early winter break, which works in our favor since we begin our ASEAN Championship campaign against Myanmar on November 27. Some of our key players are playing in those leagues and could be available to play. Meanwhile the Dutch leagues don’t typically break until after Christmas, and that’s where many of the Indonesia heritage players play. We face the Garudas again on December 7.

So hope springs eternal for the Philippines. Yes, we are undergoing a difficult patch now, but there’s every reason to be optimistic.

Banner image from PMNFT.

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