North Korea vs Azkals - Climbing Mountains

The lofty peaks of Nepal serve as a fitting background for the latest round of challenges that the Philippines Men’s National Football team, the Azkals, face in this latest edition of the AFC Challenge Cup.

Having earned the right to compete in this tournament after successfully making it through the qualifying stages, the Philippine Azkals finally make it to the tournament after failing to do so in the previous two tournaments (2008 and 2010) when a qualifying stage was introduced starting in 2008. To say that the Azkals figuratively have a mountain to climb out there in Kathmandu, Nepal is no understatement.

Not only do they have to contend with playing in a high altitude environment where oxygen levels are much lower, they have also found themselves grouped with the three previous champions of this competition – North Korea, India and Tajikistan. Furthermore, aside from Paul Mulders, it looks very unlikely that key players such as Stephan Schroek and Dennis Cagara will not be able to join the team due to club commitments. Captain Aly Borromeo is still recovering from injury and was left behind in Manila while Co-Captain Chieffy Caligdong has just only recently been cleared to play but unlikely to start pending full recovery.

Now if those factors weren’t enough, there is also this dark cloud hovering about the team following the charges of sexual harassment on two members of the team just after their friendly match against Malaysia and around the time they departed for Nepal. No telling what effect that had on the players concerned and to the team in general given the public firestorm that unfortunate incident generated here at home. That is quite a challenging mountain that the Azkals must be climb in the next few days. For the Philippines, the AFC Challenge Cup is aptly named indeed.

However, following some solid and decent performances in their Middle East tour in preparation for this tournament, and in their recent friendly against Malaysia, the Azkals have shown considerable improvement and progress. Though still very much the underdogs in their group, the team currently in Nepal has the potential of springing a surprise or two.

The team just lost 2-0 to North Korea after holding the Koreans to a scoreless draw for 57 minutes. Considering that the North Koreans are the defending champions of this tournament and as recently as 2010, were in the World Cup in South Africa as well, our team did fairly well despite the loss. Come to think of it, what is North Korea still doing in the Challenge Cup if it can qualify to play in the World Cup? Anyway, a loss to the powerful North Koreans was very likely but the positives that we can derive from that match was that the performance of the Azkals showed quite a bit of promise as we look ahead to our matches against India and Tajikistan.

Photo via pinoyfootball.com

Granted this wasn’t the World Cup team of North Korea but more a mixture of its younger players and its veterans (their Europe based players likewise could not make it due to club commitments), it is still widely accepted  that their current line-up in Kathmandu is quite formidable and they are still considered the team to beat in this tournament. Therefore, with regard to our chances of advancing from the “group of death,” we will need the North Koreans to sweep all their matches and the Azkals should do all they can to pull off wins against the other two. This is the best and simplest scenario that works in our favor. There are other permutations possible that will enable us to squeeze in to the semis, but let’s not complicate things that much for now. Let’s cross that bridge when we get there.

North Korea is the toughest in the group and the Azkals did remarkably fine against them. Maintain that defensive solidity and compactness that they’ve been working on since their training camp in the Middle East and it will serve as a good foundation for the matches ahead. Perhaps their early arrival in Kathmandu would have allowed them to get more acclimatized to the thin air and they should be improving physically with each succeeding match. Following their match against the Philippines, the North Korean coach believes that the Azkals can cause trouble for the other two teams in the group.

So here we go a shot at making history and an opportunity to create further momentum for the growth of football in the Philippines. Up in the mountainous country of Nepal, in its capital Kathmandu, a momentous occasion awaits Philippine football and its fans and supporters. It is not an easy task and the challenges are formidable, but it isn’t impossible. In fact, just being there is quite an accomplishment in itself, to even have a decent crack at making it to the semis speaks a lot of the progress that Philippine football has made in such a short period.

So let’s go Azkals, let’s go Filipinas for WE BELIEVE!!!

2012 Moira G Gallaga©