Fair Play: Fans, attitude can boost Azkals in tough qualifiers

(This is my Fair Play column for Sun.Star Cebu's April 17 edition)
SO the draw for the Fifa World Cup 2018 qualifiers for Asia is out and it hasn’t been that kind to the Philippines. We got Uzbekistan, Bahrain and North Korea, the top teams in Pots 2 and 4, and Yemen.

The best scenario would have been getting the bottom teams in Pots 1, 2, 4 and 5 but wishing for a lucky break in a football draw is a futile exercise and besides, if we truly want to be taken as a serious football nation, facing the top teams in Asia is inevitable.

So, Uzbekistan, Bahrain and North Korea it is--teams that we’ve lost to in the previous years, in tournaments and in friendlies.

We’ve faced Uzbekistan in the past, in a 2012 friendly that didn’t even make the Fifa calendar because our senior team was battling the Uzbeks U23, which was then in the middle of the Olympic qualifiers. We got beat badly, 3-0.

Bahrain, of course, is another familiar foe. We drew them 0-0 in a friendly on Oct. 12, 2012 and lost just recenly, 2-1, last March 30. Based on match accounts, we didn’t fare badly despite the loss. But now that we are facing them in the qualifiers, I wonder if Bahrain would still be gracious enough to host a training camp for us as it has done a few times in the past.

And then there’s North Korea, which beat us, 2-0, in the first game of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup and went on to win the whole thing.

Don’t let its lowly rank of 157 in the world and 27 in Asia--compared to the PHL’s 139 and 18--deceive you. Rankings are based on points earned in matches and outside the qualifiers and major tournaments, North Korea doesn’t have enough matches, hence the low ranking. Besides, this is a team that has made the World Cup twice in 2010 and a surprising quarterfinal run back in 1966.

And then there’s Yemen, the only unknown in the group as not much is known of team from the war-ravaged country.

So, like I said, the gods haven’t been kind to us. Compare our group to that of Group F, which has Iraq, Southeast Asian rivals Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia and Chinese Taipei. Aside from Iraq, all four teams have a realistic chance of making the top two.

For Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, it’s just like another Suzuki Cup campaign, but this time, for a greater stake. The group winners and the four runner-ups advance to the next round of the World Cup qualifiers and to the 2019 Asian Cup, while the eliminated 24 teams fight for the remaining 12 slots—11 if host UAE also advance to the third round.

With such a tough group, shall we just roll over and let the top teams steam roll us? Of course not, this the football team, not a Philippine Sports Commission or Philippine Olympic Committee ran group, where gold standards are a must.

We’ll be facing Bahrain first, at home, and nothing boosts the confidence more with a win against Asia’s No. 13 side and the 0-0 draw and 2-1 loss in previous friendlies show we can compete with Bahrain. And that means one factor could play the swing factor--the home crowd, which, sadly has been noticeably absent in previous home matches.

As for the team preparations, experience in the 2014 Qualifiers, and the 2012 and 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers show team management know what it takes.

That’s why even before the draw, there have been backroom negotiations to get Neil Etheridge and Stephen Schrock onboard, which have been successful.

Unfortunately, Javier Patino didn’t get his memo but I've always thought that a reluctant player is an unreliable one.

So we make do with what we have, which is of course, cliché as it is, is what the Azkal mentality is all about. It was never about pedigree, it was always about attitude. For the World Cup qualifiers, I hope, the vicious Azkals show up.


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