THE last time that the national men’s football squad reached the semifinals of the Southeast Asian Games was over 2 decades ago at the 1991 Manila Games at heritage-rich Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
By coincidence or design, the man tasked to break that seemingly impregnable barrier in the coming 31st Vietnam SEA Games in May was a member of that Philippine side that made its last semis appearance in the regional sports showcase.
The Philippine Football Federation has tapped former national standout and multi-titled coach Norman Fegidero to helm of the national under-23 squad that will try to break a 31-year jinx at the SEA Games scheduled May 12 to 23 in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and surrounding areas.
No less than English coach Stewart Hall — who handled the Azkals at the AFF Suzuki Cup last December and their junior counterparts in AFF Youth Championship in Phnom Penh, Cambodia last month — has given former deputy Fegidero the thumbs-up as his successor.
“Norman already knows the squad. He is familiar with the players and the players are familiar with him. That is a very good start. Everybody is comfortable together,” said Hall, who was given the new role of PFF technical director, in a press conference organized by the sport’s national governing body last Friday.
“I am happy to hand over the reins (to Fegidero). Because the agreement we had with the PFF president Mariano Araneta Jr. and national team manager Dan Palami was that my stewardship of the national and under-23 team was only a temporary move,” added Hall, who has been in Manila since January in planning for his new role.
Born in Bacolod, Negros Occidental, Fegidero, 52, is no stranger to handling the national team, steering the Pinoy footballers to 2nd place at the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, the original Asian Cup qualifying tournament, Group B qualifier held in Iloilo province, home of the fabled football hotbed of Barotac Nuevo.
Banking on a core of Phil and James Younghusband, Aly Borromeo and hometown stars Ian Araneta and Chieffy Caligdong, the Philippine booters chalked up 2 wins and a draw, narrowly losing 1st place to group topnotcher Tajikistan, whom they held to a goalless draw, on goal difference.
The Tajiks wound up losing 4-1 in the Asian Challenge Cup finals to host India.
“My drive to win is still very much there when I was a player. I would like to continue instilling that winning mentality in my present players,” said Fegidero, who scored the winning goal in the Philippines’ 1-0 upset win over Malaysia in the group stage in the 1991 Manila Games, paving its semis entry.
The hosts wound up absorbing a 6-2 loss to Thailand in the semis, and then were shut out 2-0 by Singapore in the match for the bronze medal.
“Reaching the semis, that’s my target in the SEA Games. This is what I told my boys in Cambodia. You have to think on winning. Wala ka sa team ko kung hindi mo gustong manalo (You won’t be on my team if you don’t want to win),” said the soft-spoken Fegidero of his Hanoi Intentions.
He is also the architect behind the success of varsity sides West Negros College and University of St. La Salle in the Bacolod-based University Games, a popular collegiate meet that has drawn teams from Manila and Mindanao.
Because of the high level of competition, the winner of the football tournament usually takes bragging rights as the best collegiate squad in the land, a feat Fegidero accomplished thrice with the WNC and once with the University of St. La Salle.
This explains his soft spot for local talent, opening the under-23 squad to as many slots as possible to them.
“That’s why I decided to invite more local players to the (training) camp to see who could play for the national team. Although I am familiar with the other players coming from abroad, not all of them will be part of my team,” Fegidero said.
He said this is why he has called up a pool of at least 40 players from collegiate squads such as FEU and UP as well as players from Mindanao, Cebu and Bacolod.
Notable exceptions, of course, and virtual shoo-ins in his book are under-23 skipper Oskari Kikkonen; midfield mainstays Oscar Rontini and Justin Baas, who play for Malaysian clubs; and Oliver Bias, a fixture on the Azkals Developmental Team, according to Fegidero.
Observing the side’s apparent weakness on offense, national team manager Dan Palami said that the under-23 squad would be bolstered by veteran strikers and dropped the names of newly naturalized forward Bienvenido Maranon and Matt Hartmann to add scoring sock.
PFF president Mariano Araneta Jr., however, was firm that it was Fegidero who would be calling the shots until the 2023 Cambodia SEA Games “because we want more of our local coaches taking us to greater football heights.”
Fegidero is also banking on an all-Filipino crew, retaining his fellow assistant coach JP Merida as his deputy, as well as respected Cebuano mentor Bingbing Colina as members of his coaching staff.
“We were also thinking of tapping (University of the Philippines) Maroons coach Anto Gonzales but we were told that I had enough deputies,” he said.
Known for speaking his mind, revealing that he had “intense” discussions with Hall in their time together, Fegidero said that he did not want his staff to be merely “yes men” but would listen intently to their insights and inputs.
Carrying the colors of the Azkals Development Team at the Copa Paulino Alcantara opening at the PFF national training center field in Carmona, Cavite, the national under-23 squad will use the competition to whip itself into competitive shape, according to Fegidero.
“For now, our focus will be the players’ physical fitness and conditioning,” said the coach, who was set to arrive from Bacolod Sunday, to personally supervise the under-23 squad’s training regimen.
With his familiarity with most of the players, Hall lent Fegidero a hand by overseeing the team’s initial training at the Carmona pitch during their first week together before his former deputy takes over.
The team makes its debut in the Copa Paulino Alcantara, which kicks off Monday at 5 p.m. featuring defending champion Kaya-Iloilo FC and Maharlika FC at the Carmona field, against Mendiola FC on March 28.
“We hope to have at least 6 matches in the competition and then another 6 more games before we head to the Vietnam SEA Games. We want to form a competitive team one game at a time,” Fegidero said. “I had wanted a training camp abroad but understand why this is not possible at the moment.”
But make no mistake, true to the coach’s winning mindset, he warned the other clubs that “we will not merely play in the Copa Paulino Alcantara but play every game to win.”
That same drive is what Fegidero hopes to fuel his charges in their forthcoming SEAG campaign in duplicating – if not surpassing –his own personal milestone in the 1991 Manila Games so long ago when none of them were even born.