May 24, 2024

FIELD GOALS | The Philippine men’s national football team members are slowly re-introducing themselves

FIELD GOALS | The Philippine men’s national football team members are slowly re-introducing themselves
The team formerly known as the Azkals take their first steps into a new era with newly-minted head coach Tom Saintfiet facing a huge challenge for his first game. | Art by Mitzi Solano/One Sports
We don't know what to call them yet, but this iteration of the Philippines Men's National Football team is showing us what they are about.


The team formerly known as the Azkals took their first steps into a new era under the bright lights of Basra, Iraq with newly-minted head coach Tom Saintfiet facing a huge challenge for his first game.

It was never going to be easy, considering it was a World Cup Qualifier against one of the top footballing nations of the continent in Iraq.

[RELATED STORY: FIELD GOALS | Growing up for the next World Cup]

To put it in numerical context, Iraq is ranked 59th in the world, 80 spots above the Philippines. Iraq is 7th in Asia, and most recently, exited the 2023 Asian Cup in the Round of 16.


Despite the prospect of playing the heavily-favored Lions of Mesopotamia, Saintfiet mentioned in the pre-game press conference that he was going to attack the hosts on their own home turf.


Upon the opening whistle the Philippines put on a performance that could be described as dogged.


The opening salvos between the Philippines and Iraq saw the Filipinos try to catch the home side on the break on rare occasions.


But the first half saw Iraq predictably dominate possession and have all the clean-cut chances.


For the most part though, the quality of Iraq was easy to see especially when it came to the mix of sheer physicality and technical ability on an individual level.


What the Philippine team could hang their hat on is their discipline and flexibility to keep the game scoreless in the first 84 minutes, before a Mohanad Ali goal ended the hopes of securing a draw near the end of the match.

[RELATED STORY: Philippine men's national football team yields to Iraq, 1-0]

Though the Filipinos went home with the loss, the glimmers of hope were undeniable. Especially when you consider that this is a squad that hasn’t even had a week together due to the realities of international football.


Players came in late to training camp because of their own domestic club commitments, which forced Saintfiet to only have a few days with the complete group.


But still, the national team setup managed to compete with Iraq in a hostile environment in front of 63,000 fans.


“I’m not happy with the loss because I hate losing. But I’m very proud of the performance of my team,” Saintfiet said after the match.


Saintfiet reiterated that the realistic goal was to draw, but just one lapse saw Iraq punish the Philippines.


“I think the Philippines can compete and the goal was to try a point. Like I said, my team did very well but one moment of lack of concentration and the opposing team utilized it,” he added.


As fans, what we discovered about Saintfiet is that he does his homework very well and turns the football field into a chess board with the way he sets up his side.


“The Iraqi team, for most of the time, had no solution against the tactical discipline of the Philippines. We analyzed Iraq. We knew the qualities of Iraq, the wingbacks and the wings,” Sainfiet explained.


The Philippines opened with a single striker and laid out tight defensive lines with the midfielders pressing and killing space to make things difficult for Iraq.


In the end, it was a high looping ball that bypassed the midfield and defenders that found Ali cutting in between two defenders that resulted in the only goal of the game.


But as much as the tactical tinkering almost stole a result, it is the score at the final whistle that matters the most.


“We tried to close the errors and it was clear that for then most of the time, Iraq had no answer but they won,” Saintfiet conceded. “So in the end, they did everything right.”


The silver lining from this opening match is that it was overall a positive start for Saintfiet’s tenure as national team coach. The team was tactically disciplined and found ways to hold off one of the giants of Asian football in their own backyard.


“I’m impressed with my players that in a short period of time, we could be difficult opponents for Iraq but in five days time, we will play again and we need to be fresh,” the Belgian coach said.


It will be a completely different ball game in the return leg on March 26 in Manila, especially with both teams now more familiar with each other.  Which means surprises should be harder to pull off.


The next challenge for Saintfiet is if he could conjure up another way to bamboozle Iraq and perhaps finally steal a point against the Lions of Mesopotamia. And as we are now discovering, Saintfiet is looking forward to doing just that.


“Hopefully, we get to surprise Iraq in Manila again.”