Friday, September 27, 2013

Fair Play: In Challenge Cup 14, it's gold or bust for Azkals

(This is my column for the Sept. 28 edition of Sun.Star Cebu)
THE Philippines just got one of its biggest breaks when the Asian Football Confederation agreed to move the Challenge Cup in Maldives from early March 2014 to late May.

I don’t know how the Philippine Football Federation did it but the change in schedule not only gives us an extra two months to prepare, it also means that our best players who are plying their trade in Europe will be available for the Challenge Cup.

And it’s not just the chance to improve on its third-place finish in the 2012 edition that has the Azkals revved up for the Challenge Cup, it’s also the chance to compete with Asia’s best teams in the Asian Cup 2015.

“It’s a very welcome development for us because we intend to field our strongest team ever in the Maldives Challenge Cup and the dates being moved have actually allowed us to do that,” team manager Dan Palami told Cedelf Tupas of the Inquirer.

When I first learned of the request for the Philippines to have the dates moved, I wasn’t expecting the move to be granted. Besides, we bid for the event and despite all indications showing that we were the frontrunner--including a mis-sent e-mail from AFC to PFF that virtually announced our hosting--the AFC awarded the event to Maldives.

So the announcement of the change of dates was a pleasant surprise.

In the lead-up to the 2012 Challenge Cup, one of the worries of Coach Michael Weiss was whether he’d get the players he wanted. With this development, he won’t have to haggle with the clubs of his players of choice. And if you have a team with Neil Etheridge, Stephen Schrock, Javier Patino, plus of course, the rest of those who are based in the Philippines already, there’s reason to hope that this team could set new heights for the country.

And of course, the pressure will be on Coach Weiss to perform. He’s going to have the best players available and anything short of a Challenge Cup triumph and outright qualification to the Asian Cup 2015 is a failure.

And no, a silver medal finish--even if it’s one better than 2012--won’t count.

Just consider the countries we would be facing in the Challenge Cup. Krygystan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Laos, Myanmar and host Maldives. We already know where we fare against fellow Southeast Asian countries Laos and Myanmar, while Afghanistan, though relatively inactive, is 19th in Asia and 132nd in the world.

Palestine is 149th and 25th, while Kyrgystan is 144th and 23rd. And the highest ranked of them all? Turkmenistan at 125th in the world and 18th in Asia. And of course we all saw what happened the last time The Philippines--141st and 21st—and Turkmenistan met at the Rizal Memorial Sports Coliseum.

So I see no reason why the Philippines shouldn’t be aiming for the Challenge Cup title and it is something that, as early as now, we should be telling our guys, not that they need any more prodding.

A little bit of pressure might help.

“There is added pressure because we find ourselves in a situation where the chance to be in the Asian Cup is within grasp, but I’m sure, our team will respond well to the pressure,” Dan said.

Dan was just being polite, but translated to Cebuano, he meant to say,”Syaro di pa gyud ni makadaug.”

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