Curiosity Knows No Boundaries

The Philippine Football Team the Azkals moving forward

The Philippine national football team, more popularly known as the Azkals, moves on to the next round of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, despite losing to Mongolia in its away match in Ulan Bator on Tuesday. Mongolia won the second leg of the home-and-away series, 2-1, but the lone away goal scored by the Azkals was enough to nudge the Filipino booters into the next round. The Philippine team won its home game in Bacolod last month, and denied the Mongolians a single point in that leg. That made the whole difference in determining the winner of the whole qualifying exercise between the two countries.

With its 3-2 aggregate victory over Mongolia, the Philippine national football team moves to the qualifying group stage of the AFC Challenge Cup which will be held from March 21 to 25 in Yangon, Myanmar. In the same group are teams that are curiously ranked lower than the Philippines (#151) in the latest FIFA World Ranking: Bangladesh (#174), Palestine (#178), and the hosts (#161). The Mongolian team which the Azkals just defeated was ranked #183.

The Azkals will kick off the qualifying group stage against Myanmar on March 21 at 6PM Manila time. In the 2010 Suzuki Cup, the Philippines held the Burmese to a 0-0 draw, but the upcoming match figures to be a tougher outing. For one, the Philippines will continue to miss the services of goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who is tied down by professional playing commitments in England. Etheridge was instrumental for the Azkals’ having held Myanmar scoreless last December. And of course, it’s always tough to play against the home team in any competition. Hopefully, the exciting new offense installed by coach Hans Michael Weiss is enough to offset the team’s defensive deficiencies.

The Philippines will play its next game on March 23, also at 6PM Manila time, against Palestine. The low rating of Palestine in international football has less to do with actual talent than it does with the circumstances of the team – and for that matter, the Palestinian state. In 2006, the team climbed up to as high as 115 in the world ranking; that same year, Palestine posted several impressive results, including a 2-2 draw against Asian powerhouse Iraq. The next year, however, tensions at home led to severe lack of preparation for the team – it actually trained without a manager for most of 2007. Problems with obtaining exit visas from the Israeli government have also forced the team to forfeit several international matches.

Nevertheless, things seem to be looking up for Palestinian football. Last week, it hosted the first competitive football match at home, the second leg of a tie against Thailand to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Palestine had lost 1-0 in Bangkok, but rebounded with a 1-0 victory in Ram, a suburb of Jerusalem. Even then, Palestine was missing eight players who lived beyond the Gaza strip; they were denied permission to travel by Israeli authorities.

Unfortunately, the team lost, 6-5, in the penalty shootout. But it remained an inspiring moment for Palestine, whose football team carries, perhaps more than any other team, the hopes and dreams of its people.

The Azkals round out their campaign with a match against Bangladesh on March 25 at 6PM Manila time. Bangladesh wasn’t particularly impressive in the 2010 edition of the Challenge Cup; after upsetting Tajikistan, 2-1, the team dropped a 2-1 result to Myanmar and a 3-0 result to Sri Lanka.


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