Underdogs and undermanned: Azkals in familiar grounds

This is my Fair Play column for SunStar Cebu’s May 31 edition.

AFTER seeing the Azkals pool for their World Cup qualifiers next week, I thought, “Hey, we might have a chance.”

There were a lot of new faces that I only recognized a few names. There was Stephan Schrock, the captain, and Neil Etheridge, the vice captain, who was off a stellar season keeping Birmingham in the Championship. At 13 years, he’s the longest serving member of the national team, with Schrock second as a 10-year veteran, having made his debut in 2011 against Kuwait.

There were a lot of new names and after learning about the background of some of them, especially those who are based in Germany, I had high hopes.

But things didn’t turn our way.

Etheridge won’t be suiting up and eight others will miss the qualifiers, forcing the national team to make some late call-ups. That’s nine of the original 25-man pool for the qualifiers who are now training in Qatar.

THE ROCK. Stephan Schrock, who made his debut in 2011, will lead an undermanned Philippines squad in their three crucial World Cup qualifiers match. (PHOTO GRABBED FROM AZKALS FACEBOOK PAGE)

Gerrit Holtmann, Lloyd Fagerlie and Jesper Nyholm are missing out because they don’t have Philippine passports, while Raphael Obermair begged off. Defensive regular Carlie de Murga, who has faced China in the past, couldn’t get a Chinese visa in time.

I was excited to see Holtmann in action, given that his team just earned a promotion to the Bundesliga, but it’s surprising that he doesn’t have a passport and got included in the lineup. Three of them in fact. We all know the passport process and we all know the minimum time needed for a passport. That they made the 25-man pool meant the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) was confident that the issue would have been long addressed.

What happened? I don’t know but I’m sure that would be a point for those who question the PFF’s reliance on foreign-based talents but I think that’s a discussion best left after June 15. Then there’s Bienvenido Maranon. He should be with the team but strange is the way that the Philippine Congress works.

It was disappointing too, to learn Etheridge would be missing out due to an injury, while Ian Ramsay won’t make it due to travel restrictions. That’s football in the Covid era.

So essentially, we are going to have a hastily-assembled team that will face Guam on June 3, China on June 9 and Maldives on June 15. We are third at seven points behind China, which also has seven but is plus 11 on goal difference to our zero and Syria, which has 15 points.

We still are in the running to finish first or second but can we with a hastily-assembled team? I’d like to think so. When have our preparations ever been ideal? No, I’m not making excuses for the PFF, it’s just that the team has dealt with issues like these in the past. They stumbled, they did well too.

There’s a reason why the name Azkals is inspired by the askal. The team in the World Cup qualifiers are in familiar grounds.

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