When they were in training camp for the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers, the Azkals lost a couple of games to a young Japanese squad. A lot of fans were not impressed and understandably so; because the scoreline of specifically the second game, was a bit disappointing. Of this lot, a handful are very vocal in their criticism of the new, offence-oriented system. They say, in summary, that the transition to a defensive- to an offensive-oriented style of play should have been more gradual; but because that wasn't done, we have had to experience quite a humiliating defeat.
This month, the Azkals are back in training camp in Germany: preparing for the World Cup Qualifying tie against Sri Lanka (and hopefully, Kuwait) and presumably, consolidating their strengths so they have more to build on when they retrain for next year's Challenge Cup proper and AFF Suzuki Cup. Part of this training camp are four test matches against “low-tier” teams, all from Germany.
The Azkals won 4-1 against both a squad from Düren and from Bonn. I have not seen footage of these games but I've read positive things from fans who were able to see them. They say that things are going well in our midfield; that new Azkal, Stephan Schröck has a real presence, winning balls and feeding the forward-moving guys; that come-backing Angel Guirado is still in that “special place”— evading defenders, creating opportunities, threatening on goal. And all of this, coupled with the prospect of Jerry Lucena and Rob Gier's return, and Paul Mulders joining Guirado in that special place, just makes the whole thing really exciting.
But a few say that these two victories should not cause too much optimism. After all, the Düren and Bonn squads are composed of either semi-professionals or playing in youth level. That the two matches are no indicator of what the Azkals can do against Sri Lanka, who have seasoned professionals in their side as well. And I agree— somewhat.
As it has been reported all over the Internet, Sri Lanka may be a cricket-mad country but they do have football as, it is said, a close number two sport. It goes without saying that to compare The Brave Reds to the squads that the Azkals have test matches with is insane. But football is not boxing— you don't arrange test matches based on how you anticipate your main opponent to play, like how boxers choose their sparring partners based on how they assume their main opponent will fight. Test matches don't intend to simulate the real, upcoming game; the intention is to see how the drills translate to real, and often macro-, situations. That and, as we all know, the Azkals test matches are for developing cohesion.
So the results are really no big deal: losses to the Japanese college, we can take in stride and not sulk over; wins against the German squads, we can be happy with but not celebrate too much. What's important is that from February to June— just four months in between— we are seeing a national team that is very far from what it was the same time last year. Just imagine what can happen in the next eight to twelve months should they continue with what they're doing.
What's irritating though is that some people just don't have imagination whatsoever, with a number of them belonging to that subset of highly-vocal critics. They go on-and-on pointing out the dots but can't seem to connect them: lost to a Japanese college team, lost to Mongolia, can only draw Myanmar and Palestine, have not beaten strong teams— just Bangladesh and a couple of low-tier German kids. Most see just the facts (some don't even know the facts) but don't realise how the facts— and yet more facts surrounding those facts— are related.
The Azkals isn't the only national team in our region that is trying to raise its profile— for one reason or another. Perhaps our team is relatively more visible considering the novelty of the idea that football is alive in the Philippines and to feed this new life, Filipinos are talking full advantage of our famous global workforce. That's a godsend that any marketing guy will be a fool not to exploit. But being more visible, obviously doesn't mean that the other nations are not as motivated to do more than what they are used to doing.
Mongolia, I don't know much about. We beat them on our turf, they beat us on their turf, but we advanced because we scored on their turf, which they weren't able to do for themselves here. I think it is fair to say that we are slightly the better team. Myanmar and Palestine, however, had (and have) arguably bigger things to fight for; and for the Azkals to have come away with a result against these two teams— considering what the Azkals have been through before and during the tournament—, they've done very well. Bangladesh, on the other hand, isn't known to have a strong squad; the Azkals defeated Bangladesh convincingly— nothing wrong with that.
Whatever the Azkals did in Japan, including losing to a college team twice, had something to do with seeing us qualify for the next edition of the Challenge Cup. Whatever the Azkals are doing in Germany now, including those two wins and whatever result they get in their next two test matches, will have something to do with how they perform 1) against Sri Lanka, and any possible future matches after that; 2) in the Challenge Cup; and 3) in the next edition of the Suzuki Cup.
To make a very long story— with lots of sub-plots and back stories— short: The. Azkals. Are. Doing. Pretty. Well. And. We. Expect. Them. To. Become. Even. Better. After. Each. Outing. They. Will. Suffer. Setbacks. But. Will. Take. These. As. A. Test. Of. Character. And. Overcome. Them. To. Meet. Their. GOAL!!!
Originally posted on PinoyFootball.com on 19 June 2011.