THE year 2019 saw the Philippines suffer a lot of heartbreaks in football.
It started when the Azkals bowed out of contention in their first-ever AFC Asian Cup stint last January and ended when the men’s U22 team and the Malditas had near-misses in their respective Southeast Asian Games campaigns.
Also, the Philippine football community will sorely miss Phil Younghusband, the Azkals poster boy who last November announced his retirement at age 32.
Kyrgystan ended the Philippines’ first-ever AFC Asian Cup stint with a 3-1 victory.
It was the Azkals’ third successive defeat which brought their campaign to an end, although Stephan Schrock did make history by scoring the country’s maiden AFC Asian Cup goal in the 80th minute.
“Regardless, it was a historic run and an outstanding experience. Win or learn, at the biggest stage of Asian’s football. We are all honored to represent our beautiful country. Thank you Kababayans, we gave it our all,” said Schrock through his Twitter account.
After that, legendary coach Sven Goran-Eriksson ended his three-month contract with the Azkals.
“For the whole federation, the people behind the team, and the players, it’s an extremely good experience to see what it’s all about, to be in a big tournament, to meet teams like South Korea, China and Kyrgyzstan, and if you’re not up to it 100 percent you don’t win games like this,” Eriksson said.
The Azkals campaign began with a promise, a gallant 0-1 defeat to the Koreans in the Group C opener, but a 0-3 loss to the Chinese and a 1-3 setback to the Kyrgyzs gave the Asian Cup debutants a grim reality check.
“It’s very good especially for the young players, and that’s a positive, but of course zero points is not good,” said the 70-year old Eriksson.
“We maybe could and should have done a little bit better, but, for sure, it’s good for the future for the country,” he added.
Prior to steering the Philippines to the continent’s biggest football showcase, Eriksson also handled the Azkals to a semifinals finish in the AFF Suzuki Cup in December 2018.
Playing in front of their home fans in the SEA Games ruled by Vietnam, the Young Azkals gave everything on the pitch.
The Philippines beat Timor Leste, 6-1, but missed a semifinals spot as Cambodia topped Malaysia, 3-1, in the final day of the group stage.
The Azkals were level with the Cambodians in goal difference until an own goal by goalkeeper Anthony Pinthus, who mishandled the Timorese free kick in stoppage time, left the 3,300 fans that packed the Biñan Football Stadium in Laguna stunned in disbelief.
Though tied with the Philippines in second place in Group A with seven points, Cambodia progressed in the semifinals by virtue of a plus-6 goal difference compared to the Philippines’ 5. Myanmar topped the Group A table with 10 points.
It also negated Amani Aguinaldo’s superb performance, as the Davao native netted a hat-trick.
Aguinaldo’s third goal in the 90th minute gave the Young Azkals a commanding 6-0 advantage.
The Philippines thus failed to duplicate the feat of the 1991 team that made it to the semifinals in the biennial meet which also held in Manila.
A week before the SEA Games, Younghusband, who made a total 108 international appearances and scored 52 goals for the Philippines, both of which are the country’s all-time records, has said adieu to the sport that he loved.
“It was a big pleasure to play along with him for over nine years. He had massive achievement for the national team. He was the one who put the Philippines in landscape of football in Asia,” said Schrock.
“I’m very very happy and proud that I got the chance to play with him,” he added.
The Fil-Briton’s last appearance for the Azkals was in the AFC Asian Cup last January.
“Hanging up my boots! Thank you to my bosses, my coaches, team mates, competitors and all the supporters who have been part of my journey. See you all soon in a new adventure,” said Younghusband in his social media accounts.
The Azkals are now focusing in vying for slots in the Fifa World Cup and in the AFC Asian Cup.
Despite falling short of a podium finish in the SEA Games, things look bright for the Philippines’ women’s football program.
The Malditas bowed to Myanmar, 1-2, with the visitors going home with the bronze medal after coming back from a goal down before a shocked crowd at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
“There are so much improvements with this team even with only two months of preparations. We are very proud of these players because in the last two months, they stepped up. Even though we lost this match, still it was a very good performance. I’m very proud of them,” said national coach Let Dimzon.
“It was really painful, but still, their performance is really really good for me. The players gave everything for this game,” she added.
The Philippines’ showing in the biennial meet somehow proved that the gap is getting closer against the region’s best like Vietnam, which beat Thailand, 1-0, in extra time to in the final.
“We just need to keep these players together. The players are capable of another improvement,” said Dimzon.
Up next for the Malditas is the AFF Women’s Championship which the country will host for the first time next year.
The second senior women’s competition that the Philippines will host following the SEA Games, Dimzon is counting with the support from the crowd.
“We are very thankful for all the fans who supported us. Yung morale na ibinibigay nila, yung support, it gave the players a high morale. We are trying to give our best. The support that they gave is heartwarming for us,” said Dimzon, referring to the 3,000 people that showed up in the third place match.
“Yung promotion ng Philippines sa football is different now because of the level of improvement of this team,” she added.
Reigning Philippine club champion, Ceres-Negros, meanwhile, has set a new record with its third appearance of the club in the AFC Champions League and a sixth stint in the AFC Cup.
The Bacolod-based side reached the AFC Cup zonal semifinals earlier this year, losing to eventual champion Hanoi.