MANILA, Philippines – After their historic performance in the AFC Challenge Cup last March, the Philippine national football team are back in action this June as they face off against Malaysia, Indonesia and Guam in a series of FIFA international friendlies.
The Philippine Azkals will fly to Kuala Lumpur to play Malaysia on June 1, return to the Philippines for a June 5 date against Indonesia at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, and then make their much-awaited comeback to the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod against Guam.
The friendlies come as the Azkals go into more intense preparations for the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup.
In an interview with ANC, Azkals coach Michael Weiss admitted that the team did not have a long time to prepare for the three matches, but he is certain that they will be able to manage.
"We have been together now for more than one year, and most of the players know how we want to play. So even a short period will allow us to be ready," Weiss said.
"For these three friendlies, we probably have one of the best line-ups ever in the Philippines, because Stephan Schrock is here, Neil Etheridge is here, the Younghusbands are here and professionals from Denmark – (Jerry) Lucena, (Dennis) Cagara and (Paul) Mulders – will be coming," he added.
"They will be there for two matches at least, so it’s gonna be very exciting."
For Weiss, the Azkals' toughest challenge will most likely come against Malaysia, the 2010 Suzuki Cup champions. The Tigers are ranked 153rd in the FIFA World Rankings.
"(Malaysia) will give us a picture of what to expect later in the year (in the Suzuki Cup). This is a really hard test," he said.
The Azkals will be missing the services of first-choice goalkeeper Etheridge (suspension) and the Younghusband brothers (prior commitments) against Malaysia,
"We still have a very good line-up," Weiss said. "I'm positive from this rematch from the 29th of February, when we almost had them, but they got a goal in the last minute."
"So I hope that doesn't happen again."
The Azkals had taken a 1-0 lead against Malaysia in their February 29 friendly, but the Tigers sneaked in a late equalizer.
Meanwhile, the June 5 match against Indonesia (ranked 151st by FIFA) is being touted as "the home game that never was." The Azkals were supposed to play Indonesia at home during the 2010 Suzuki Cup, but were not allowed because the Philippines allegedly did not have a stadium good enough for the match. The Azkals ended up playing their "home" game in Indonesia as well.
"It is so critical to have a home game. One, for the players, we all know what a home game means for them. And secondly, for the fans. We must be able to build a culture here, a footballing culture, and football will not go anywhere without the fans," said Ebong Joson, chairman of the local organizing committee.
Joson emphasized that the upcoming friendlies are not "exhibition matches" but rather, FIFA international friendlies that will have an impact on the Azkals' place in the world rankings.
"These are the real deal," Joson said.
Guam, ranked 194th by FIFA, is not expected to be as tough as Indonesia or Malaysia, but Weiss is looking forward to that match as well.
"Guam is a bit lower ranked, but we can experiment a little bit and give younger players a chance," he said.
The Azkals are hoping to build on the momentum of their historic run in the AFC Challenge Cup last March, wherein they finished in third place – their best ever finish in the tournament. -- With a report from ANC.
The Azkals’ international friendlies will be aired locally on the following schedule:
June 1 (Friday)
Philippines vs Malaysia – 6 p.m. on Studio 23
Replay June 12 (Tuesday) – 3:30 p.m. on BALLS
June 5 (Tuesday)
Philippines vs Indonesia – 6 p.m. on Studio 23
Replay June 14 (Thursday) – 3:30 p.m. on BALLS
Philippines vs Guam – 6 p.m. on Studio 23
Replay June 16 (Saturday) – 3:30 p.m. on BALLS