x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Every dog will have its day and ‘Azkals’ say theirs is coming soon

They sit more than 50 Fifa ranking places behind the UAE, but the Philippines national team, or the “Azkals”, as they are known, go into the friendly football international between the two nations at Zayed Sports City on Saturday with very little fear.

Philippine national football team coach Michael Weiss of Germany has instilled confidence in his players that they can achieve what they set out to do. Cheryl Ravelo / Reuters
Philippine national football team coach Michael Weiss of Germany has instilled confidence in his players that they can achieve what they set out to do. Cheryl Ravelo / Reuters

They sit more than 50 Fifa ranking places behind the UAE, but the Philippines national team, or the “Azkals”, as they are known, go into the friendly between the two nations at Zayed Sports City on Saturday with very little fear.

For that they can thank the remarkable transformation that the team have made since their German coach, Michael Weiss, took over, almost three years ago.

“I don’t want to pat myself on the shoulder here,” Weiss said, before citing facts. “When I arrived our ranking was in the 170s, now we are 137th. But everyone here, from the federation, the players, coaches and myself, we have had fantastic progress.”

For Weiss, who previously coached China and Rwanda at the Under 20 level, it is about more than the numbers.

Giant leaps have been taken at all levels of Philippines football.

“The rankings don’t reflect the advances we’ve made. We could have been even higher,” said Weiss, 48. “There has been progress at the grass roots, and many more pitches and facilities are being built. It’s really remarkable what has been achieved.”

Mahdi Ali’s UAE team are using tomorrow’s match as a final preparation for their 2015 Asian Cup qualifier against Hong Kong next week.

A win there would see them secure qualification for the 2015 finals in Australia.

The Azkals, or “street dogs”, will follow up the friendly in Abu Dhabi with another in India, next Friday,

They, too, have a big prize in their sights.

“We have already qualified for the AFC Challenge Cup,” the coach said. “Our aim is to win it and to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup finals in Australia.”

Winning the Challenge Cup – taking place next year in the Maldives from May 19 to 30 – in 2008 became a way for “emerging” Asian footballing nations to make it to the continent’s biggest competition.

“In all modesty, we are one of the favourites,” Weiss said. “And we absolutely have a chance to win it, especially that a lot of the overseas players from Europe would be available at that time of the year.”

One of those players is the English-Filipino defender Rob Gier, 32, a fixture in the team since 2009 and an admirer of Weiss’s.

“You can’t argue with his record,” said Gier, who plays for Ascot United in the Hellenic Football League Premier Division, the ninth level of English football. “Just look at the results and the Fifa ranking since he took over. It speaks volumes for our progress.”

Like his coach, Gier sees a good opportunity to reach Australia 2015 via the Challenge Cup.

“There are many other strong teams, especially from central Asia,” he said. “But if we have the right preparation and are looked after properly, and with the talented players and hard-working backroom, we have a big chance.”

The team have come close before. In 2012 in Nepal, the Azkals finished second in their group behind North Korea, before losing 2-1 to Turkmenistan in the semi-final and beating Palestine 4-3 in the third-place play-off match.

Weiss believes they can go one better: get to the final, and win it.

“It would be a sensational result,” he said. “The team is now peaking. When we can call on all of our players, which unfortunately we can’t this Saturday, we are confident of taking on anybody, even the Emirates who are now in my opinion one of the best teams in Asia.”

The match against the UAE will be one of the toughest challenges yet for Weiss and his players, but they are hoping that the country’s considerable Filipino community will give them a boost on the night.

“Everywhere we go, people know about us,” he said. “Unfortunately, this match was marketed perhaps a little late, maybe members of the community are busy that night, but hopefully they will still come out to see us.”

In the past, Azkal fans have shown incredible support for their team, Weiss noting two matches against Bahrain in recent years which attracted almost 15,000 Filipinos.

The bond between Azkal players and fans remains strong.

“One of the great things about this team is that we are accessible to our fans,” the former Wimbledon and Cambridge United player said. “Already we’ve had people here in the hotel lobby posing for photos and asking for autographs.”

Gier has one promise for Azkal fans.

“If there are fans who want to come and see us, we will do our best to give you something to cheer about.”

If word spreads quickly enough, the UAE could be in for a tough time, on the pitch and in the stands.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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