May 24, 2024

FIELD GOALS | Ambition fuels a new chapter of Philippine football

FIELD GOALS | Ambition fuels a new chapter of Philippine football
Coach Tom Saintfiet looks to lead Philippine men's football into a new era. Art by Mitzi Solano/One Sports
“Ambition” is a common buzzword thrown about when new leadership comes around in almost every sporting institution.


The Philippine Football Federation is no exception, with a fresh administration led by newly-minted President John Gutierrez and National Teams Director Freddy Gonzalez.


For those not familiar with Gonzalez, he is a Philippine football icon from an era when the sport was almost anonymous to the greater public. Gonzalez was a rare export in the ‘90s, plying his trade as a forward in Vietnam and representing the Philippines from 1997 to 2002.


Apart from Gonzalez’ appointment as National Teams Director, the former striker also succeeded long-time shot caller Dan Palami as the manager for men’s national side.


The change in management also ushered in a shift of direction, going for the freshest of starts possible. The includes doing away from the popular “Azkals” monicker — a move that elicited a wide range of reactions.

[Related: ‘Served its purpose’: PFF to move on from Azkals monicker after announcing new head coach]

 In the introductory press conference of the new coaching staff to open the Gutierrez administration’s tenure, Gonzalez laid out specific targets for the next six years.

"We set lofty goals and very ambitious plans for the national teams,” Gonzalez said. “One is to win the Mitsubishi Cup, that's something that is really a big thing for us, to qualify for the 2027 Asian Cup, and to qualify for the 2030 World Cup.”


To put into context as to how aspirational those goals are, the Philippines has never reached the final of any iteration of the now-Mitsubishi Cup, the South East Asian region’s showpiece competition.


The Philippine national team also have only once qualified for the Asian Cup in its 68-year history, and has never come close to reaching a FIFA World Cup.


The ambition has been set — but the question remains whether or not the new regime could turn this into a realistic and attainable dream.


To accomplish these goals, the team management have reached out to one of the most coveted names in African football: Enter former Belgium Coach of the Year nominee Tom Saintfiet. 


After a five and a half years of leading Gambia and coaching them to back-to-back African Cup of Nations appearances, Saintfiet turned down offers from African giants Cameroon, Ghana, and Nigeria to come to the Philippines.


The interest in his services are no surprise, considering Saintfiet was also shortlisted for the African continent’s best coach plum in 2022 and 2023.


When quizzed about why the experienced Belgian picked the Philippines over some of Africa’s powerhouses and even China — it was the South East Asian nation’s aspiration that stood out.


“I was really impressed about their ambition, their plans, their goals,” Saintfiet said.


Saintfiet also clarified he chose to leave his previous post with Gambia and that his moving on was motivated by the need for a new challenge.


"I was in need of a new task, an ambitious task. I was not in need of a job, I was in need of a project. I am very happy, I am very proud to be part of this ambitious project,” he added.


This appointment did not come out of nowhere, with Saintfiet admitting he was first made aware of Philippine football after an approach from the previous administration 11 years ago.


This led to Saintfiet to keeping an eye on the team formerly known as the Azkals from a distance and resulted in an understanding of the potential latent in the national team.


Gonzalez was mum on the exact length of the contract of Saintfiet, but assured the media this is a long-term arrangement.


As part of the administration's mandate to develop local-based footballers, Saintfiet went to work quickly since his unveiling and organized a training camp for those based in the country.


Even the rest of the new staff is organized to ensure the transfer of knowledge and technology to benefit domestic football. With every foreign-based member of the staff having a Filipino counterpart to impart knowledge to.


While it could take awhile before the local-based footballers reach the caliber of the foreign-born and trained players, Saintfiet is eager to prepare those within the Philippines both mentally and physically to perform at a high level.

[Related: Philippine Men’s National Football Team coach Tom Saintfiet calls up 34 players for camp]

Football fans won’t have to wait long to see which of the locals would sufficiently impress enough to break into Saintfiet’s first match day squad, with an international window looming over the horizon.


The first challenge of Saintfiet would be in a challenging back-to-back set against Iraq in the joint AFC Asian Cup and FIFA World Cup Qualifiers on March 22 and 26.


The optimistic, realistic goal is to be able to steal a point from the West Asian power especially when they visit Manila on the 26th.


The first step may be rough for Saintfiet and the still monicker-less Philippine Men’s National Team considering the weight of the opposition on the 22nd and 26th.


But it will be the first litmus test of the strength of the ambition of this brand new chapter of Philippine men’s football.