Saturday, October 19, 2013

Fair Play: Is it time for Azkals to shoot for Asia's top 10

WHEN we made it to the top three in Southeast Asia in the Fifa men’s rankings in April, 2012, I thought then that it didn’t mean that we were the third-best team in Asia. We were simply busier than the other teams and if we meet traditional powerhouse like Indonesia and Malaysia, who were ranked below us, they were still the favorites.

That was then.

Now, the Philippines is at 137 in the world and No. 1 in Southeast Asia. We are also at No. 20 in Asia, two spots ahead of Thailand (137), and five better than Myanmar (149). Vietnam, which we beat anew in the 2012 Suzuki Cup sans our best Europe-based players, is at seven spots further in Asia and is at 151 in the world.

It’s quite remarkable that just over two years after announcing in 2011 that the Philippines is aiming to be in the top three in Southeast Asia, we are now the No.

1 team. And we are. If we are to have a friendly next week with any of the Asean teams, no longer will the traditional powers be the favorites, even if we field a team of UFL-based Azkals. That’s how much have changed since April 2012.

This piece of news, coupled with that exemplary performance against Pakistan in our Peace Cup triumph, means anything’s possible for the Azkals, I think even cracking the top 10 in Asia.

Right now, the top 10 teams in Asia are (in order), Japan, Iran, Uzbekistan, South Korea, Australia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, China and Saudi Arabia. And Iraq, Qatar, North Korea, Kuwait and Tajikistan are the next five.

Among the teams that are higher than us in Asia, we’ve drawn Bahrain (123, 17) in a friendly last year; lost to North Korea (107, 13), 2-0, in the AFC Challenge Cup also in 2012; had that painful 2-1 loss to Tajikistan also in the Challenge Cup semifinals; beat Turkmenistan (125, 18) in 2012, 2-1, and, 1-0, just last March.

And of course, who can forget that couple of losses against Kuwait in 2011 in the World Cup qualifiers, 3-0 and 2-1, in 2011? We lost to them anew in a friendly last year, 2-1.

Those are respectable results against teams that have decades of continues development.

We’ve had matches against top teams like Japan and Oman in the past, but I don’t count the pre-2010 matches as I believe that was another era of football development in the country.

What’s next for us? A friendly against the United Arabe Emirates in November.

I’ve always believed that there isn’t much a difference in quality among teams that are 20 places apart in the Fifa world rankings but against UAE, which is 13 places above us in Asia at No. 7 and 66 places above us in the world at No. 77 I’m quite hopeful. Provided that we have the best team possible, and I’m talking about guys like Stephen Schrock, Javier Patiño, Phil Younghusband up front—I’d say we might just pull an upset.

The match against the UAE on Nov. 9 is just a friendly, but I think the result will show whether it’s time for us to aim for the top 10 in Asia.

FALLOUT. The news of the Philippines making the top spot in Southeast Asia also highlighted the absence of a men’s football team in the SEA Games. It’s a U23 competition but some members of the senior squad are eligible.

Now, the PSC-POC, which, to be fair, gave the go signal for the women’s team as it thinks it has a solid chance of winning the gold medal, will have to explain in a Senate Hearing why it didn’t send a men’s team.

It’s going to be interesting how they’d justify their critera.

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