Philippines rally to make history and qualify for first-ever Asian Cup
The Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila is closer to downtown than most Asian stadiums. It is also small and almost falling apart, but it has a sense of history and it certainly witnessed something historic on Tuesday as the Philippines qualified for a first-ever Asian Cup, to be held in 2019.
It was as tense and as tight as the legendary traffic jams in the country's capital, but eventually the national team came from behind to defeat Tajikistan 2-1 and top Group F. It means that next January, the Azkals -- as the national team are nicknamed, a moniker that means "street dogs" in the Tagalog language -- will be heading to the United Arab Emirates with 23 other nations in a newly expanded edition edition of the tournament from 16 back in 2015 to 24 in 2019. It should help, for a while at least, to push the "Three Bs" of boxing, basketball and billiards out of the sports headlines in this former United States territory, giving football the boost it needs.
Such intangibles were not on the minds of players or fans in Manila however. Tuesday was all about getting the result. This was not a game where the performance mattered if the scoreline was the right one. And it was, just.
It was a strange game and atmosphere in some ways. A point at home to Tajikistan was certainly within reach, after all the Philippines had won 4-3 in Dushanbe last June, but there was tension in Manila. After two wins from the opening two games, the Azkals could have sealed qualification with a game to spare in November but missed their chance against bottom team Nepal.
That 0-0 draw took it to the final game. Perhaps the Azkals were unsure what to do. Needing a point against a team that needed to win, coach Thomas Dooley's men were more reactive than usual, not wishing to make the mistake that led to the goal.
But it came after 64 minutes. Ahktam Nazarov converted from the spot and it looked as if Tajikistan were going to spoil the party and take their first-ever place at the Asian Cup.
The Philippines came back in fine fashion. Ten minutes later, Kevin Ingreso headed home the most vital goal he is likely to score and maybe the biggest to date in the nation's history. And just to settle the nerves, and there were plenty of those, Phil Younghusband scored his 50th international goal from the spot in the final minute. That got the party started, the near miss ahead of the 2015 Asian Cup just adding to the excitement. That late strike also went down well in Yemen as it secured their debut at the tournament, too, ensuring a second-place finish above Tajikistan.
It is also vindication for Dooley. The German-born former United States international has been in place since 2014 but had come under pressure after a disastrous 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup campaign. The Philippines, semifinalists in Southeast Asia's biennial championship in 2010, 2012 and 2014 co-hosted the 2016 event but crashed out after a winless group stage.
Dooley's relationship with star midfielder Stephan Schrock took a turn for the worse and the former Bundesliga player has not featured in recent games. The two have long had a rocky relationship, but after the Nepal setback there was pressure on the coach to bring back the in-form midfielder. Dooley refused. He was always going to be judged on whether the team got to the Asian Cup. Now he can claim vindication.
It remains to be seen if Schrock gets a recall ahead of next January. It is unlikely, though not impossible. If not, there is still plenty of European and international experience to call upon. The midfielder is one of a number of internationals who were born and raised around the world with one parent from the Philippines.
Some of these, such as the Younghusband brothers, Phil and James, who are former Chelsea youth players, play their club football in the Philippines. Some, such as Neil Etheridge, the goalkeeper helping Cardiff City's promotion push to the English Premier League, are still overseas.
This policy of casting the national team net far and wide started about a decade ago and has helped the country become a force in the region. More is needed however. The Philippines Football League, a first professional nationwide league, has just kicked off its second edition but has issues. Two of the eight teams dropped out ahead of the new season, citing financial concerns.
The Asian Cup then comes at the right time to put football back on the back pages. It also comes at the right time for the national team. At the start of the decade, the Philippines were the whipping boys of Southeast Asia. That is no longer the case, but now is their time to be tested on the continental stage.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.