The Bleachers King: Where the Azkals should go

Posted at 12/27/2012 6:37 PM

The challenge of success is living up to growing expectations. A misstep here and there and you have these crabs proclaiming that a player or the team – to put it mildly -- “sucks.”

There is no question that the ascent of the Philippine Men’s Football National Team is not a fluke. Far from it. It has been two years of continuous ascent. There’s the third-place finish in the AFC Challenge Cup, the first-place finish in the Long Teng Cup/Peace Cup and the semis finish of the recent Suzuki Cup. The last three tournaments capped a difficult time when we lost one friendly or qualifier after another.

This is, of course, not exclusive to the Philippines. Countries considered developing ones in world football go through them. Case in point, in 2006, the United States was oddly ranked in the Top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Following their crash out of the 2006 World Cup, they leveled off in the 20s. The US has since been struggling to attain their former status in world football although they’ve had a number of exceptional performances.

Having said that, by no means are the Azkals a finished product. The team re-tools on a regular basis. Not being the media officer of the team anymore, I have no idea of what the short- or long-term plans are.

Nevertheless, as a longtime fan and one close to what goes on, I’d like to offer an unsolicited blueprint to the where the national team should go. People associated to the team should keep and open mind because this is not a critique of what has transpired.


Aside from never-ending search for quality players, there’s the matter of coaching job to settle and it is perhaps the most important one.

There is still no word whether current head coach Hans Michael Weiss’ contract has been renewed. The German coach has been at the helm for the past two years and under his watch, the Azkals have made its best strides.

There is word – although unofficially – that Weiss’ contract has been extended for a year but that is just the scuttlebutt as team manager Dan Palami has remained tight-lipped while PFF president Mariano V. Araneta said the decision lies with the former.

There are a lot of questions that should be posed when considering this most important job but perhaps the most important criteria is: Can the coach take the national team to the next level? Can the coach teach the skills needed or, for the matter, is he a teacher? Can he inspire his players to give their all? And can his tactics be solid and communicable all the way to the youth national squads?

If the coach is Filipino, then he must not be affiliated with any school so he does not use the national team as a feeder program for his school program. It goes without saying that this is a conflict of interest.

Furthermore, is the coach a winner? Did he win as a player? And has he won as a coach?

It is easier to be able to communicate things when you’ve won. Take a gander at Pep Guardiola who won as a player and later as manager of Barcelona. Ditto with Alex Ferguson who was successful in the Scottish Premier League before moving over to Manchester United where he transformed the Red Devils into the winningest English side.

Conversely, Diego Maradona won with Napoli, Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Argentina but has been a bust as coach. So it doesn’t work all the time. That is where the teaching aspect and the strength of character come in. What does the coach stand for?

I am surprised that our various national squads employ different tactics and formations. This is proof that there is a lack of cohesion between the different coaching staffs and patrons. A system and style of play must be imposed from the youth all the way up to the senior squad.

Should the head coach be Filipino or foreign?

I think it should be whoever is most qualified to take the job. The coach must have a coherent and doable three-year plan that should be presented in great detail and not just words. There should be a regular evaluation to determine whether the program is working or not.

In terms of competition, the immediate task of whoever our head coach is to win in Southeast Asia. How can we even dream of qualifying for the World Cup when we cannot leapfrog past our corner of the world? Therefore the coach should understand the competition in the region.

In the event that the incumbent coach is not renewed, I would like to recommend a couple of coaches.

I was about to say: one, Louis Van Gaal but he is now head coach of the Netherlands as he replaced Bert van Marwijk after a disastrous Oranje campaign in South Africa; and two, Felipe Scolari, whose teams always show a marked improvement but he is now coach of the Selecao and is tasked with winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Are these coaches beyond our capability to pay? Maybe but think of what a high-profile coach can do for the program?

So here are my candidates outside Michael Weiss who remains the top dog (pun intended).

Radojko Avramovic – The Serbian’s swan song with Singapore was the perfect way to go out. His departure was years in the making but Avramovic has signified a desire to continue. If Singapore, four-time regional champs, is the current class of Southeast Asian football, who better to help the Philippines finally slay the Lions than their former head coach?

Norman Fegidero Jr. – He once coached the Azkals and did not tolerate any star complexes. Left when the football officials tried to interfere in the coaching. Much like former national coach Desmond Bulpin, he is a no-nonsense coach who thrives on discipline and preparation. He will give the homegrown players a chance and keep everyone on their toes.

Rob Gier – He already does a lot for the team with his scouting reports and recommendations for tactics. While he is said to be not yet ready as he has a lot on his plate back in England, a few of his teammates believe that he will be up for the job in a few years’ time. Gier certainly commands the respect of his teammates. If true, then he should already be brought aboard in an apprentice status so he will gain experience. It is different sitting in the coach’s seat as opposed to the players’ spot.

Shopping list for players needed

We need a striker up front to play alongside or ahead of Phil Younghusband. While in Chelsea, Phil played behind the top man as an attacking mid. He thrived in that role and he unveiled how effective he can be in that spot during Loyola’s match with Green Archers United in the battle for third place in the recently concluded UFL Cup.

Younghusband was brilliant in a feeder role as he found Mark Hartmann and other teammates time and again. He capped his sterling play with a goal of his own. But Phil cannot do it alone as opposing teams mark him from the beginning. Having another lethal boot alongside him will help.

I hope that the coaching staff considers the following players:

Tating Pasilan (Green Archers United) – His speed and strong boot will be an asset. His finishing is spotty though. He will open things up for Phil and the other wingers.

Mark Hartmann (Loyola) – He is tall, has a wicked boot and has a terrifying free kick. If he can be consistent with his movement and defense, he’ll be a terrific addition to the team in a midfield spot. Find me a better free kick taker in the country today.

Jerry Barbaso (Global) – I have no idea why he is constantly overlooked. Is it because of his hair? How many people in the UFL have scored off him? He might not be tall enough to deal with the taller forwards but his speed and doggedness is nonpareil.

Deo Segunial (UP) – Tall, strong, and a quietly efficient operator. The lynchpin of UP’s defense these past five years.

Patrick Deyto (Green Archers United) – One of the best goalkeepers in the country. Should be given a chance to show what he can do.

Play more possession-based football

We simply dribble too much. Way too much. Who doesn’t admire Barcelona? Who doesn’t watch them in this age of live streaming, cable television, and YouTube? So why do we not play that way?

On a semipro level, the best passing team was the former Pachanga (not to be confused with the current incarnation playing in the UFL’s Division One). In college, there’s FEU. You have to watch those guys as they play the best possession-based and attacking football in the country.

I love how Winfried Schafer has transformed Thailand’s game from a long-ball playing one to a team that likes to hold on to the ball and make foes pay with their terrific passing. They just ran into a team that was more physical, taller and experienced in Singapore.

The Azkals have shown flashes of this passing game but have not been able to sustain it for a full game. I am sure they know this. It’s a matter of fine-tuning this.

Strengthen the UFL and other local tournaments

It is good that many of the Fil-foreigners are now playing in the UFL. A quality premier league will keep players in shape and in a better position to join camps for the national team.

I have no idea why there is a blatant disregard for the UFL’s schedule when it is published ahead of time with all parties informed of how the tournament pans out. This really smacks of disrespect. And furthermore, if the UFL is being called "unpatriotic" then why aren’t these same pundits railing against Fulham, Hoffenheim or Duisberg?  There are simply too many crabs in this country and Johnny-come-latelys who do not understand the game or the structure that is crucial to the sport’s growth.

There should be a coherent calendar of all the football activities that go on. The Smart Club Championships, the NCAA and UAAP, and other tournaments should be calendared well with results and players kept track of.

A strong local league means there is a bigger pool of players to choose from. Plus, they are kept fit because of the year-round competitions.

Introduce a program for improving the players’ skills and strengths

Thus far, this is only for clubs with extra money to burn. I think that teams should really invest in players’ improvement in terms of skill, strength, explosiveness and nutrition.

It is the basketball programs (not to mention the endurance athletes) that have wholeheartedly embraced this. Why can’t our footballers, clubs or national teams do the same?

I’d like to venture how the original Smart Gilas players improved not just skills-wise but also physically under Rajko Toroman and trainer Jim Saret. They were good going into the national team but they all came out far greater players. The product is on display in the PBA.

Our footballers should commit to this full time. Too often we see that poor pitches and the lack of facilities are given as excuses. That’s like saying one is late because of metro traffic. It is traffic for almost every single day of our lives if you live in Manila. The question is, what are you going to do about it? That applies to our footballers – how do you improve your game?

Lastly, have more camps locally rather than abroad.

Unless they avail of training of foreign coaches there I do not see the point of going overseas unless it’s for a match or a tournament.

The national team is the ultimate aspiration for any footballer. The number of homegrown players is shrinking at an alarming rate. In the last Suzuki Cup there were only three – Ed Sacapaño, Chieffy Caligdong, and Ref Cuaresma. If Neil Etheridge or Roland Muller were available, Cuaresma would have most likely been dropped.

It has already been established by no less than Dan Palami that the national team should be made available to any one of Filipino blood regardless of where they come from and I agree. But the homegrown ones should be given a clear-cut chance of making it.

Notice how following the Vietnam win, there were many posts, status messages or tweets about Chieffy, the homegrown guy coming on and winning it (they also conveniently forget that Angel Guirado made the beautiful chip pass to Caligdong) or Ed Sacapaño was stellar at goal. There are still overtones subtle and not-so-subtle about race.

If on a level playing field homegrowns are given that opportunity, then that eliminates the view that the national team has become an exclusive enclave for Fil-foreigners.

It truly is an exciting time not just for the Azkals but also for Philippine football. We’ve shown that the sport is here to stay. This is the challenge of success. Now the nurturing begins in earnest.