MANILA, Philippines -- In beating regional rivals Thailand in the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022, the Philippines overcame massive odds not just on the field but off it as well.
The Filipinas were underdogs against Thailand, a team ranked 38th in the world that has featured in the last two editions of the FIFA Women's World Cup. Moreover, the Thais have won their past 12 meetings against the Philippines, including a 3-1 triumph in the AFC Women's Asian Cup in 2018.
Yet the Philippines entered the match in Navi Mumbai last Friday with confidence, thanks in large part to a long training camp in the United States. They were the more aggressive team in the first half, repeatedly threatening against Thailand with Katrina Guillou and Hali Long coming close to putting the Filipinas ahead.
Their aggression was rewarded in the second half, when Chandler McDaniel's powerful shot from outside the box with nine minutes to play proved too much to handle for Thai 'keeper Waraporn Boonsing.
"Lots of things went right on the field," head coach Alen Stajcic would say after the game, which finished 1-0 in favor of the Philippines.
"I thought our defensive effort was exceptional. I thought we limited them to three or four half chances, and we know how much danger they've got up front," he said. "For me, I actually, genuinely believe we were the better team and deserved the win."
For all their confidence entering the match, however, the hours leading up to kick off were far from straightforward for the squad.
Stajcic revealed that the Philippines had "a small COVID outbreak" within the team, forcing them to isolate in the last 30 hours leading up to the game. That also cost them Japan-based striker Sarina Bolden, who was unavailable for the match against Thailand.
"So for us to put in that kind of performance, you know, with being under such extreme difficulty in the last day just shows how far this team (has) come," said Stajcic. "You know, I'm really proud of their effort and resilience to be able to bounce back after a really difficult 24-, 30-hour period for the group."
"It shows we got a lot of good qualities in this group. They deserve to be rewarded with a lot of applause and a lot of praise," he added.
"It's a special victory for the country."
Stajcic, 48, has plenty of experience in women's football, having previously coached the Australian women's national team and led them to the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. Yet the past 30 hours he endured with the Filipinas was a different challenge altogether.
"It's definitely the biggest mental hurdle I've had to overcome as a coach, and I know the whole world's been dealing with the pandemic," he noted.
"But just to have it on the eve of your first match is really something difficult to overcome, so I think that's what really makes me proud about this performance today," he added.
It remains to be seen if Bolden will be available when the Filipinas return to action on Monday against Australia, who underscored their status as tournament favorites with an 18-0 demolition of Indonesia in their first match.
Nonetheless, Stajcic is confident that the Filipinas will bring the same focus and intensity that they had against Thailand when they play the powerhouse Matildas.
"We've got a big game against Australia who, you know, is such a powerful team, one of the best teams in the world. We need to really re-focus, as soon as we hit past midnight tonight, on that game," the coach said.