BRIMMING with confidence, veteran midfielder and Azkals team captain Stephan Schröck looked forward to “to making history with the Philippine Under-23 squad,” which kicks off Group A men’s football action Friday in the 31st Vietnam Southeast Asian Games.
“For me, this group is more prepared than the last time. This is my second time in the tournament so I am very excited this close to the opening game. I look forward to making history with the Under-23 squad,” Schröck said in an online press conference from Viet Tri, Vietnam Tuesday afternoon.
The Filipinos open their campaign against familiar rival Timor Leste – the third match between the two sides since October – at the 16,000-capacity Viet Tri Stadium in the Phu To provincial capital, 81.5 kilometers northwest of Hanoi.
It will be the second straight SEA Games outing for the midfield maestro, who was also the anchor of the under-23 squad coached by Serbian mentor Goran Milojevic at the 2019 edition of the Games staged mostly at the historic Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
The Filipinos fell one step short of advancing to the semifinals after drawing 1-1 in Group A against Cambodia, which advanced to the next round on goal difference 6-5 at the expense of the hosts as they wound up tied with seven points each with two wins, one draw and one loss.
“Of course, our first objective is to be in the semifinals,” said coach Norman Fegidero, who was a member of the last national side to reach that phase in the 1991 Manila SEA Games, thanks to his winning goal in a 1-0 upset of Malaysia in the group stage.
For Schröck, the present squad under the former Ceres FC assistant coach has what it takes to take the country back to the semis it last attained 31 years ago.
“The team is well prepared. The team looks very solid and looks very good at what we are doing. I was positively surprised when I joined the team. I enjoyed the training sessions, the inputs,” he said. “Everything is set up for us to win games and prepare for what is coming for us in this group.”
The midfielder more known by his nickname Shrocky was also thankful for Fegidero in calling up for the squad again.
“I am grateful for coach Norman in taking me as one of the overage players. I don’t take these things for granted, especially when you’re wearing the flag,” the player said. “This an exciting team with exciting talents. They have improved a lot in the last six months.
“With adjustments in the next three days, I know we can pull up something very, very big.”
Given the fact that the team would be practically playing every other day, Schröck, known for his passion for fitness, assured fans his 35-year-old legs would be able to sustain the grind because, “I can play every day.”
Fegidero reciprocated the seasoned footballer’s trust since “Schrocky will be a big help to the team because he can lead the boys in reaching our objective.”
He cited his own and Schröck’s national team experience that meant “a lot of sacrifices. You have to sacrice your family, you have to sacrifice your time Hopefully, our experiences will inspire our boys in carrying us to the next level in our goal to be in the semifinals first.”
Sharing the coach and the veteran player’s sentiments was midfielder Oskari Kekkonen, who was also present at the briefing.
“We’ve been together for a while already (and) I have really seen the growth of the team. We have been together since last October (in the AFC Under-23 qualifiers) and the last (AFF U-23) tournament in Cambodia,” Kekkonen said. “I am really excited for the team in the forthcoming SEA Games.”
Born in Kotka, Finland, the Kaya FC mainstay has grown to respect Fegidero as a mentor, saying: “Coach Nonoy has a great experience as coach and a great career as a player. The first thing I noticed in his training is the great intensity. Hopefully, we can bring it to the games as well.”
Fegidero said that his approach to the tournament was to take it “one game at a time,” and would not overlook the Timorese.
The charges of Brazilian coach Fabio Magrao beat the Junior Azkals 1-0 in the AFC Under-23 qualifying competition in Singapore last October 2021 then settled to a 2-all tie the last time they met in the AFF U-23 tourney in Cambodia in February.
As one of the teams that will open the country’s campaign in the Vietnam Games, Fegidero felt the pressure, but made no mistake what their intentions were on Friday.
“We will go for the win,” he emphatically said.