THE Philippines’ victory over Tajikistan in the final matchday of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers made the non-believers believe in the Azkals again.
The Filipinos struggled, especially with the last three draws that put the Azkals in a tricky situation of making it to the continent’s biggest football showcase.
With the Philippines’ making its first-ever appearance in the tough Asian Cup next month, the Azkals hope that the fans will rekindle their love for football.
“The most important thing is success,” said skipper Phil Younghusband, who scored the late penalty for the Philippines’ 2-1 win over the Tajiks before 4,671 fans at the Rizal Memorial Stadium one late night in March.
“That’s what we did, by winning the game.”
The Azkals have also made their mark in the AFF Suzuki Cup.
The Philippines advanced to the semifinals for the fourth time in the last five editions since 2010. The Azkals’ remarkable run, however, was cut short by eventual champions Vietnam, but the team’s true grit was evident to get back in the top four of the region’s biggest football competition after missing the bus two years ago.
Still, the Philippines’ biggest achievement is still the run to the Asian Cup.
The campaign took place over nearly three years, with the early stages of qualification combined with 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers.
The Azkals were a team on a mission, eager to erase their heartbreak from four years ago when they were just one match away from qualifying in the 2015 edition in Australia, only to fall to Palestine in the final day of the now-defunct AFC Challenge Cup.
In the second round of qualifiers, the Azkals registered impressive victories over North Korea, Bahrain and Yemen to finish third in Group H and the country eventually rose to an all-time high of 115th in the Fifa World rankings in May 2016.
The Philippines had a good start in the final round of the qualifiers, with an emphatic 4-1 victory over Nepal at home before edging past Tajikistan in an epic 4-3 thriller in Dushanbe to keep top spot in Group F after two matches.
The Azkals’ march to history was stalled by successive draws against the Yemenis and a scoreless standout to the Nepalese in Kathmandu.
Needing just a point to guarantee a place among Asia’s elite, the Philippines looked doomed after Kevin Ingreso conceded a penalty to Tajikistan.
But Ingreso atoned for his mistake with a header to level before Younghusband scored his 50th international goal in the 90th minute to bring the Azkals to the Asian Cup.
“The win showed the spirit of the Filipino people, the fighting spirit,” said Younghusband. “Even when we’re down, we can bounce back and I think we showed and typified it today.”
Being a debutant in the Asian Cup, the Philippines will not be in Dubai to be just a part of the competition.
Younghusband, who has been with the national team for 13 years starting with the 2005 Southeast Asian Games, is happy to be part of the team again.
“I’m happy to be a part of it. Everyone is a part of it. I’m just blessed,” said Younghusband.
Come January, the odds may be against the Azkals, as they face powerhouse Korea, which stunned Germany in the Fifa World Cup group stages last June, China and Kyrgyz Republic.
But the Philippines, now under coach Sven Goran Eriksson, will try its very best to prove that its entry in the Asian Cup is no fluke.
Not to be outdone is the country’s women’s national team, which made history by competing in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan last April.
The Malditas actually had a good start by beating the Jordanians in the opening match, but missed out on qualification to next year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup in Paris, France.
The good news for the team is it secured a berth to the second round of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic women’s football tournament Asian qualifiers after hurdling the first round in Tajikistan last November.
In club football, Ceres Negros and Kaya Iloilo will represent the Philippines in the AFC club competitions early next year.