Football: Possible for PH to reach Australia's level

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 27 2022 07:20 PM

The Philippine women's national football team stands for the national anthem ahead of their AFC Women's Asian Cup match against Australia. Photo courtesy of the AFC.
The Philippine women's national football team stands for the national anthem ahead of their AFC Women's Asian Cup match against Australia. Photo courtesy of the AFC.

The Philippines can one day reach Australia's level in women's football, but it will take time and plenty of support and investment.

This, according to veteran defender Hali Long, who has played for the Philippine women's national football team since 2016 and captained the squad against the Matildas in the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022 last Monday night.

The Filipinas gave a good account of themselves against Australia, holding the world's No. 11 team scoreless for 50 minutes before Sam Kerr broke through in the 51st minute. The Aussies went on to grab a 4-0 win, but the Filipinas were pleased with their outing against a world-class side.

"I said that I would wanna win my little battles on the field, and that went for the entire team. I think we all won our little battles when we needed to, and even if we didn't win that moment specifically, we tried to win the next one," Long said.

"And our hustle, on and off the field, definitely showed in that game. So I think it was a really big boost in our morale," she added.

That the Philippines stood toe-to-toe with a powerhouse Australia squad for so long drew attention, especially considering the stark difference in experience between the two sides.

Australia features several players who see action in European and North American leagues, including Kerr who stars for reigning Women's Super League champions Chelsea and Alanna Kennedy of Manchester City. Moreover, six of the Matildas have over 100 caps for their country, with defender Clare Polkinghorne making her 140th appearance for the Matildas.

In contrast, Long was the most veteran player on the field for the Philippines, as Australia was her 43rd cap. The team's goal-keeper against Australia, 22-year-old Kiara Fontanilla, was making her first appearance for the country. 

Australia skipper Sam Kerr (20) rises for a header against the Philippines' Sara Castañeda (12). Photo courtesy of the AFC.
Australia skipper Sam Kerr (20) rises for a header against the Philippines' Sara Castañeda (12). Photo courtesy of the AFC.

"It was a really good experience for all of us, playing against that caliber of a team," said Long, who made crucial defensive plays all throughout including a key block against Kerr in the first half. "It's a really good benchmark for us."

"We had nothing to lose in that game, and everything to prove, and I think for 50 minutes, we did prove that," she added.

Their inspired performance also raised the possibility of the Philippines someday rising to the level of the Aussies as well as the other top teams in the continent.

"I think we can," Long said when asked if the Philippines can reach the Matildas' level. "But it's definitely gonna take time."

Long noted that the highest-ranked teams in Asia -- Australia and Japan -- did not reach the upper echelon of women's football overnight. 

"Definitely, it was hard work and dedication of a good pool of players over, I think Alen (Stajcic) said over 10 years. He coached them since they were in the youth (level), growing up," she added.

"I think any team can get there, as long as we are dedicated and we are supported throughout that journey," Long stressed.

Stajcic, now the Philippines coach, is intimately aware of how long it took for Australia to climb the ranks. He coached the Matildas from 2014 to 2019, steering them to the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as to back-to-back AFC Women's Asian Cup finals.

Philippines coach Alen Stajcic. Photo courtesy of the AFC.
Philippines coach Alen Stajcic. Photo courtesy of the AFC.

The Matildas' success, said Stajcic, "didn't just happen overnight."

"There were institutes, there were player development systems, player identification systems. There are lots of things in place to find these players and train these players and prepare these players, and that takes years," he said.

If the Philippines -- or any country, for that matter -- wants to reach the same level, they must be prepared to invest the same time and resources, said Stajcic.

"If they think a magic wand can come to their team and fix any issue in 10 minutes, they're on another planet," he said. "It really takes a lot of hard work in the grassroots and development systems to be able to find, and train, and develop some of the best athletes within your own country."

"Australia did a good job of that 10 years ago, and they're reaping the rewards of this fantastic team they've got," he added.

Still, he feels that the Philippines' recent outing against his former team is proof that the program is heading towards the right direction.

"For us, we spent three months in camp. And for us to bridge that gap so quickly is really a phenomenal feat from this group of players," said Stajcic. "I think the country should be immensely proud of what they produced today."

The Philippines can take another step forward in their development should they win against Indonesia in their final Group B match in the AFC Women's Asian Cup tonight at the Shri Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex.

A victory will seal their spot in the quarterfinals and keep them on track to earn one of the five spots to the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 that is at stake in the tournament.

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