2011: The year the Azkals revived Philippine football
The seeds of the team were already there, though, and after the losing record they went on an 11-match unbeaten run racking up five wins and six draws. Without making a mark in any major competition or beating a well-ranked team, the team was just competing for the title of the best of the minnows in Southeast Asia.
Since Manager Dan Palami took control of the team, however, they have improved their ranks and confidence and shocked Asia with a 2-0 victory over regional powerhouse Vietnam in the 2010 Suzuki Cup. This kick-started everything and set the scene for 2011 to become the biggest year in Philippine football history since the glory days of Paulino Alcantara and the Philippines' solitary trophy in 1913 when they beat China 2-1 to win the first ever Far Eastern Games.
The team went on to become at one stage the most improved nation in the world, based on ELO ratings. This is somewhat remarkable given football was virtually unknown to the general populace. TV networks hurriedly reorganized schedules to show matches, some networks just hearing for the first time that the Philippines had a football team. So here's the first part of a two-part series looking at how the Azkals have achieved that success and the forecast for 2012.
February: Challenge Cup qualifiers 1st round
Many nations didn't have to qualify for the group stage of the Challenge Cup in 2011, which was in itself the qualifying stage for the Challenge Cup in 2012. In their group only the Philippines had to go through the knockout qualifying stage which also saw Afghanistan, Taiwan and Cambodia enter the group stage. The first leg was played in Bacolod, considered by many to be Philippine football's home given the popularity of the sport. Indeed the official 20,000 capacity crowd is perhaps an underestimate and was by far the biggest audience of any of the qualifying matches.
The Philippines dominated the match after Mongolia went down to 10 men 25 minutes into the game after Pagamsuren Altantulga was sent off. Fittingly, Iloilo native Chieffy Caligdong broke the deadlock as the first half was drawing to a close. With everyone thinking it would end goalless he popped up on the left wing to dink the ball over his defender and volley it through the goalkeeper's legs.
In control of the game but unable to kill it off, the Philippines seemed to be heading into a tricky away leg with only a single goal advantage for all the possessions and shots. Into the fourth minute of injury time, Phil Youngshusband sent the crowd into a frenzy as he squeezed the ball in on the rebound.
In the return leg in Mongolia, the Azkals got off to a flying start when James Younghusband scored in the 4th minute. This put the Azkals up 3-0 on aggregate and though Mongolia came back to score two first-half goals and bring the aggregate score to 3-2 to the Philippines, they couldn't managed to score again and the Azkals qualified for the next round.
Success: The Philippines were the only team in this knockout round to beat a higher ranked opposition on aggregate to qualify.
March: Challenge Cup qualifying group stage
Having beaten Mongolia, the team now entered the group stage of qualification, a round robin of four teams with the top two making it through to the final stage of the tournament in March, 2012.
Drawn against Bangladesh, Palestine and hosts Myanmar, it was a tricky group which got off to a disheartening start when leading for most of the match Myanmar scored a late free-kick to take a share of the points. Palestine beat both Myanmar and Bangladesh in their other games but failed to score against the Philippines as the two played out a 0-0 draw and left an all or nothing clash in the Philippines' final game of the group against Bangladesh.
Anything less than a win would see Bangladesh or Myanmar qualify while a victory would guarantee progression to the finals. As it was, the Philippines finally turned on the style and the team gelled to outclass their opponents to win 3-0. Qualifying behind Palestine in the group, the team made the Challenge Cup Finals in March, 2012.
Success: The Philippines were the only qualifiers of the knockout round to also qualify for the final stages.
June-July: World Cup qualification
The Philippines were drawn against Sri Lanka in the opening round of the AFC World Cup Qualification. Moving up in the rankings, the Philippines were rated higher than Sri Lanka though things got off to a sluggish start as Sri Lanka took the lead in Colombo through a deflected free kick before Nate Burkey scored the equalizer.
With their backs to the walls the Azkals showed their fighting spirit again and dominated a lackluster Sri Lankan side at the Rizal Memorial Stadium. Winning 4-0, the team advanced into the Second Round of World Cup Qualification, 5-1 on aggregate.
The draw saw the Azkals face Kuwait in the next round, a team ranked 67 places above them at the time. The start was sluggish again and the absence of Aly Borromeo and Stephan Schrock, due to suspensions, also didn't help the team in a 3-0 loss to Kuwait.
With little chance of progressing the Azkals came out strong in front of a home crowd in the second tie as Rizal Memorial Stadium started to become the team's fortress. The Philippines took the lead with what later became the Kaholeros' goal of the year: Stephan Schrock hammered the ball into the top of the net from 25 yards out.
Kuwait came back in the second half and equalized before having a man sent off. Pushing for an upset win, the Azkals were caught on the break and Kuwait took the lead with 10 men. The result meant that the team was knocked out of the World Cup Qualification 4-1 on aggregate but they won many plaudits along the way.
An honorable mention also goes to Yanti Barsales, who retired from international football in June, playing his last game for the Azkals against a UFL XI. The year 2011 has been the best for Philippine football, but the current stars owe much to standing on the shoulders of Barsales, who made his debut in 1992, and other Filipino veterans.
Success: The Philippines recorded their first victory in World Cup Qualification and battled to a 2-1 loss against the reigning Gulf Cup of Nations Champions, Kuwait, in the next round.
September-October: Long Teng Cup
Reaching the next round of World Cup Qualification had lifted the Azkals high in the public consciousness and television coverage was now almost guaranteed for each match. From being unknown, news about the team was starting to flood the nation's consciousness.
Tipped as potentially the Philippines' first trophy since 1913, the 2011 Long Teng Cup seemed to start in the worst possible way with Hong Kong scoring two early goals and asserting their dominance. Phil Younghusband converted a penalty to put the Azkals back into contention before half-time though and after the break Caligdong, so often the team's creative inspiration, scored twice to put the Philippines ahead. In the dying minutes of the game it seemed the Philippines had completed a remarkable comeback against the tournament's highest ranked team until Hong Kong equalized in the 86th minute.
In their next match, the Philippines faced Taiwan, which had already beaten Macau 3-0. Playing out a 0-0 draw the Philippines would repeat their feat in the Challenge Cup of drawing the opening two games before winning the last game to finish second in the group with five points. A 2-0 win over Macau gave the Philippines those points, though truth be told it wasn't the Azkals' best performance and the Philippines only won as Caligdong dragged his country into second place. Hong Kong meanwhile destroyed Macau 5-1 and Taiwan 6-0 to rule the Long Teng Cup for the second time.
Success: The Azkals improved on their position climbing to second place in the group with two draws and a win compared to a win, draw and a loss the year before.
Fun fact: Ian Araneta was the 2010 Long Teng Cup's top scorer, netting four goals in three games. This time around Caligdong was the only player in the tournament to score four goals to win the Golden Boot award.
With no tournaments left for the senior team in the year the Philippine Football Federation arranged friendly matches for the national side. First saw Singapore looking for revenge as the last encounter between the two nations ended in a 1-1 draw which eventually knocked Singapore out of the 2010 Suzuki Cup in the group stage for the first time since 2002. Singapore won the game 2-0 but they had to work for the result.
Ranked 30 places above the Philippines at the time it was still a worthy effort from the Azkals, who faced a Nepal side that is a place above Singapore in the FIFA rankings. Two goals from Phil Younghusband, one from his brother James and one from Matthew Hartmann had the visitors posting a 4-0 triumph.
Success: The Philippines established themselves as the most improved nation in the world based on ELO ratings. An arguably more accurate rating system, developed by a chess grandmaster, the ELO ratings showed the Azkals had been the most improved country in the world over the past 12 months at this point.
November: SEA Games
The SEA Games were perhaps the biggest disappointment of the year for football fans. Without adequate preparation, the Under-23 players struggled against their Southeast Asian rivals and recorded one win in five games.
The U23 team lost to Vietnam 3-1 in their opening game and was followed by a surprise 2-1 defeat to Timor Leste. The team defeated Laos in extra time as Joshua Beloya struck two late goals to turn around a 2-1 deficit and record their only points of the campaign. The Junior Azkals also suffered consecutive losses to Myanmar (5-0) and Brunei (2-1) as the Philippines dropped to the bottom of the group.
Success: Not much in this case though finding several younger players with great potential show Philippine football's future.
December: LA Galaxy
The game itself ended 6-1 in favor of the LA Galaxy, the Azkals' biggest loss of the year. Yet the result didn't matter as playing against the LA Galaxy in the first place was the achievement.
This capped the Azkals' year in style as David Beckham, arguably the biggest football star in recent football history, graced Manila by opening the scoring with a trademark curling shot and whipped in crosses to supply the next few goals. With teammates such as USA's top goal scorer Landon Donovan, Ireland's Robbie Keane and a host of other quality players, the spectacle was what was important this time around.
While it wouldn't be wise to have many such games, deflating the confidence of the Philippine players with heavy losses, as Weiss pointed out after the game, it was the perfect way to cap off the year.
Success: Originally the LA Galaxy had not intended to play in the Philippines. After the success of 2011, the newly crowned MLS champions were convinced that football had grown enough in popularity and quality to stop by the Philippines on the way to Australia. The LA Galaxy is the biggest club to visit the Philippines in decades. — JVP/HS, GMA News