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2020 FIFA WCQ: Why Syria is a major threat for Azkals

The 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign of the Philippine Azkals is about to begin as they face Syria at home in Bacolod on September 5, 2019.

However, the assignment facing coach Scott Cooper’s men is a tricky and dangerous one as although Syria will be heading as visitors into the crucial fixture, bringing a recent run of unfavorable results, the squad also known as The Eagles of Qasioun (which denotes the mountain near Damascus) are still a formidable squad for the Filipino team that is just beginning to hit its stride in the international football scene.

In the three times that Syria and the Philippines have faced each other (once in 1984 and twice in 2001), the Western Asians were the ones who ended up victorious.

Here are a few points, both good and bad, in relation to the Philippine Azkals regarding the dangerous Syrian national team.

The Good (What the Azkals can exploit)

Syria, with its current political issues as a nation, has affected the national team in terms of maintaining its previously lofty status as a footballing force in Asia.

Due to internal conflicts at home, Syria – for almost a decade now – played all of its designated “home” matches in neutral overseas venues.

The lack of a home-base eventually took its toll on the team in both preparation and results as The Eagles were only able to muster two wins in the year 2019 (in March 23 and July 8 respectively).

To further emphasize Syria’s downturn in terms of form, it wasn’t able to register a win in its most recent campaign which is the 2019 West Asian Football Federation Championship finishing with two draws and two losses putting the team in last place in Group A.

Leaky defense, in several instances, and a frontline that lacks firepower were the main issues that the Syrian side has had that has contributed to such unfavorable conclusions.

Syria’s recent, historically uncharacteristically poor form, is something that the Philippine Azkals could take note of and exploit, but these are just very minor points as we move to the threats and strengths that Syria possesses.

The Bad (What the Azkals should be wary of)

Although Syria is currently in the midst of a seemingly lackluster state in international football as already mentioned above, there are several points as to why this team is still very much a formidable force and most possibly a daunting task for the Philippine team to face in its bid to kickstart its World Cup qualification campaign on a high.

First and foremost, the most obvious, is the ranking of both squads. Syria is currently 87th (as of this writing) in the FIFA Ranking. The Philippines, meanwhile, sits further down at 126th. In the Football Elo ratings (which is a more realistic system in this writer’s opinion), Syria stands at 96th with the Azkals at 174th. Such a discrepancy, even on paper, puts the Azkals as underdogs.

Second, even if Syria is experiencing a low point (relative to its usual footballing standards) with its dismal run of results, it is important to consider that they are situated in West Asia, which is a very strong and competitive region in the Asian Football Confederation where several continental powerhouses (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) and dark horses (Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, UAE) are included. Such a dip in form and performance (due to understandable factors that the likes of Syria is experiencing) are punished severely results-wise.

Third, with their dismal run hounding them, Syria is motivated to overturn such a streak and head coach Fajr Ibrahim’s men are preparing well for the match against the Philippines in order to seize a monumental away win and turn their fortunes for the better in the best possible situation which is the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Such are just some of the reasons why Syria should not be take lightly and all the more that the Azkals should be wary and on-guard against this team.

Syria’s possible key players

FIRAS AL-KHATIB (Forward)

Despite being already 36-years of age, Al-Khatib is still a very much effective scorer both for club (Al-Salmiya) and country.

Such ability to put the ball into the back of the net front has been proven once again in the 2019 West Asian Championship when he top-scored as captain of his team with two goals.

With a rate of almost a goal in every other match (0.48), Al-Khatib is still very much a major threat if he will suit up and set foot on the pitch in Panaad on September 5.

AHMAD AL SALIH (Defender)

29-year-old center-back Ahmad Al Salih is one of the most capped players for Syria and will most likely to be in the squad against the Philippines.

A player with extensive experience in club football both domestically and abroad, Al Sahli will most likely be a key figure as one of the most dominant enforcers in the backline.

Aside from being primarily a defender, Al Sahli has the occasional penchant to score goals (mainly in set-plays) when needed.

OMAR KHARBIN (Forward)

Despite not featuring for the Western Asian Championships, Omar Kharbin might feature for Syria against the Azkals as the world cup qualifier match falls within the international break.

A player for Saudi club side Al-Hilal, but currently plays for Egyptian side Pyramids on loan, Kharbin is one of the in-form players for The Eagles of Qasioun.

Him being one of the only two players to find the back of the net in the 2019 Asian Cup proves his ability to deliver on the big stage.

OMAR AL SOMAH (Forward)

Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli’s towering striker (at 1.93 meters), Al Somah has been a prolific scorer in club football, but has yet to translate that for Syria.

If called up in the match against The Azkals, the 30-year-old’s size and ever-present threat to light it up as a target-man could pose a real problem for the Philippines.

Philippines’ key strengths

Without getting into details, here are some factors that could play in favor of the Philippine Azkals:

HOME PITCH

Philippine weather has its quirks and could play in favor of The Azkals. The home support would be very much play a factor as well.

IN-FORM INDIVIDUALS

The Azkals currently have some key players of their own especially ones that are performing well both in the domestic league and leagues abroad.

If Scott Cooper’s men can build good chemistry within, then it’s possible that they can produce an unprecedented upset against the much higher-ranked Syria.

At this point, it might be considered that Syria might be a shadow of its former self in the football world, but it cannot be denied that the West Asians have a much better track record than the Azkals.

But if the Philippine Azkals will be able to execute well come kick-off and maximize the advantages they have at home, then it is very much possible for The Azkals to get dream start to the World Cup qualifiers.

The September 5, 2019 World Cup qualifier match between the Philippine Azkals and Syria kicks off at 7:30PM in Panaad Stadium.

Photo credits: Syrian FA Facebook page

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OPINION: Lipa facility brings much needed dignity for Pinoy pro football

Just as the season in Philippine professional football has reached its midseason with the league seemingly just going through the motions a much welcome development happened with the inclusion of a facility in Lipa, Batangas that could save the league from a viewership perspective.

More known as the Aboitiz Pitch located within the Lima Estate in Batangas right on the edge of Lipa, the venue (which serves as the home ground of Green Archers United), with its current features as a playing surface and potential as a major hub for top-level tournaments, may just have shown what it takes to invigorate the remaining fixtures of the 2019 Philippines Football League [PFL] season.

It’s time to delve a bit more as to why this artificial pitch facility located at a considerable distance south of Metro Manila is such a saving grace for a league that could have headed towards an even greater disappointment in terms of fan experience.

BEFORE: A SAD SITUATION

PFL’s 2019 season hastily got its green-light after the demise of what could have been a season under a new league management (with a different branding). With several factors at stake, most especially when it comes to the Philippine clubs’ eligibility to participate in the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) international club tournaments (namely, AFC Cup and AFC Champions League) for the country’s top two performing teams (held by Kaya FC Iloilo and Ceres-Negros for the 2019 season), the league pushed through with the status quo when it comes to the top-tier professional club league affairs.

However, for 2019 it wasn’t really the same compared to 2018. The league opted to scrap the traditional “home and away” format particularly the inter-island travels in consideration of the the participating clubs which shouldered exorbitant costs for transportation and lodging for away  matches the past season. But this decision, in effect, removed Ceres-Negros’ Panaad Stadium and Kaya FC’s Iloilo Sports Complex out of the equation when it comes to the venues, leaving the league with two stadiums that can host matches: Rizal Stadium and Stallion Laguna’s Binan Football Stadium.

The problem is Rizal Stadium eventually was closed for renovation as it has been tapped as a venue for the upcoming 2019 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) football.

As a mitigating approach, the PFF artificial training pitch in Carmona, Cavite was tapped as another venue. Now lies the problem, that particular facility is not suitable to regularly host top-tier football matches as it is what it is: a training facility. It maybe a decent playing surface but it is far from appealing as a match venue for fans.

It maybe understandable if two to three matches were held there due to extreme reasons such as that suitable venues were unavailable. But no, the PFF Training Center has been for quite a considerable space in time been the ‘de facto’ main venue of the league. The effect via livestream was disheartening. 

In one particular match between Ceres and Kaya last July 10, in what should be the biggest high-quality match of the season between the only two of the nation’s AFC Cup participants for 2019 – both boasting national team players and players with European football experience – and one can see in every corner, missed attempt or throw-in scenario, cows grazing a few feet away. This writer can categorically say that that was one of the lowest points of the league’s current season.

SAVING GRACE

On July 23, the PFL had an inspection in the Aboitiz Pitch in Lipa as a possible additional venue to be primarily used as the home grounds of league debutants Green Archers United.

Eventually the nod by the league’s management has been secured and soon enough, Aboitiz Pitch hosted for the first time on August 3 as a neutral turf for a double-header that featured Mendiola against Global and a redemption headliner for the second meeting between defending league champion Ceres and cup ace Kaya.

For the first time, in quite a while, an evening kick-off was witnessed. Although, the proceedings have been dampened by the excessive downpour brought about by the monsoon exacerbated by a typhoon system north of the country. The new ground proved its worth, showing its features as a capable “all-weather” playing surface with an impromptu stress test. Despite the rains and howling winds, that affected the livestream coverage and even the technical overall quality of the match, the game was able to push through due to its surprisingly adequate drainage system that despite some puddle buildup, was still playable enough not to suffer major match delays. 

The following weekend, on August 10 and 11, with much more favorable conditions,  fans both in the stands and watching via livestream were able to enjoy the matches more.

LIPA PITCH: NOT PERFECT, BUT [MUCH] BETTER

The new venue option in Lipa may have provided a much needed revitalisation for the league in terms of the viewership experience for fans both in-person and on-line but it still has quite some improvements to undergo.

First is the spectator area, the bleachers aren’t covered forcing the fans to retreat to the roofed area during the August 3 and 4 matchdays, which does not have seats (facility management provided monobloc chairs as a stopgap but they were limited in numbers) and is far from the pitch drastically lessening match experience.

Second, the toilet facilities for spectators were not easily accessible (one has to go around the venue or pass over or under the tape barriers) and had drainage issues for the men’s room (the monsoon could have contributed) using instead the staff’s toilet or go further to the retail/mall restrooms.

Third, it’s just damn far (for Metro Manila fans). But this fact has a major upside: It opens up the sport to possible new fans within the vicinity. The playing ground is situated within an industrial zone. Beside the pitch is an outlets mall with shopping and dining facilities. Also nearby is a residential area. The setup is almost perfect in applying the principle of bringing the sport to the places outside the distractions of Metro Manila.

Despite these shortcomings, it is to note that the Aboitiz Pitch is not yet 100 percent complete especially when it comes to what it can offer to in-venue viewers. At least two food shops are planned to be setup behind the spectators’ area which once completed, would drastically improve the overall experience for fans. 

This football facility in Lipa is a very welcome addition to the current Binan Football Stadium – which is not yet capable of hosting evening matches, and surely much better than the spartan and “not media friendly” PFF Training Pitch.

HOW ABOUT PFF CARMONA?

This doesn’t mean to fully eliminate the training center in Carmona being featured in the PFL, but it should be used for extreme cases only – as a last resort for last-minute, unforeseen venue constraints. The considerable number of matchdays in the past weeks should be enough already.

PFF Center doesn’t have the appeal, all the more, the atmosphere to host a football match that is considered as “professional” and “top-flight”.

To paraphrase one player who shared his resoundingly positive impression after playing in Lipa last August 3:

“This [Aboitiz Pitch] is very good! It has lights, fans are here [despite lower turnout due to the weather]. It encourages us to feel better and play better. 

“It looks more professional – the way it should be.

“How can we be encouraged in [Carmona] if there are no fans watching, even worse, there are cows?!”

The Carmona facility should stay as it is meant to be: a training pitch. It should be a haven for clubs and squads to improve themselves and play outside the prying eyes of media and the possible accompanying distractions from fans. Case in point: The Azkals’ closed-door match against Mongolia last year as part of the preparation for the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup.

A SMALL POSITIVE

In closing, the coming of Aboitiz Pitch in Lipa to the PFL is just a small positive, but an urgently needed one.

There are still challenges in Philippine pro football that need to be addressed such as spreading the league to the provinces in a cost-effective manner, and using other traditional media channels to reach more people (particularly in Bacolod and Iloilo which are represented in the league) to name a few.

It is good that a new facility came into the Philippine professional football landscape. Here’s to hoping it won’t end there. Last June 6, the PFL management also did an inspection of a stadium in Imus, Cavite, which may or may not have passed the requirements as it has yet to host a match. Whatever, the case maybe, the need to increase match-worthy venues is imperative as it is a reflection of the league itself.

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AFC lay down iron hand against match-fixing; four players banished for life

In an official statement dated August 2, 2019, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Disciplinary and Ethics Committee imposed lifetime bans to four footballers who, after investigation, have been proven guilty of committing match-fixing violations.

The exact statement are as follows:

“The Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) zero-tolerance approach to the manipulation of football matches in its jurisdiction was demonstrated when the AFC Disciplinary and Ethics Committee banned four players for life.”

The four severely sanctioned individuals are Kursanbek Sheratov, Vladimir Verevkin, Iliaz Alimov and Abduaziz Mahkamov.

Sheratov, of Kyrgyz Republic, was found guilty of being involved in a match-fixing conspiracy involving his Kyrgyz Republic-based club Dordoi FC in the 2017 AFC Cup and was also found guilty of supporting betting activity in connection with this particular match. The two findings were in violation of Articles 66 and 69 of the AFC Disciplinary and Ethics Code.

Verevkin and Alimov, also of the Kyrgyz Republic, were found guilty of being involved in a match-fixing conspiracy involving their Kyrgyz club FC Alay in the 2017 and/or 2018 season of the AFC Cup.

Meanwhile, Mahkamov who is from Tajikistan, was found guilty of being involved in a conspiracy of match-fixing involving the same club, FC Alay, in the 2017 and 2018 seasons of the AFC Cup.

The three individuals were charged for violating Article 66 of the same code.

All four personalities are sanctioned to as banned for life.

The AFC currently has been staunch in its efforts to uphold integrity in its competitions implementing serious efforts to stamp out attempts at match manipulation by handing out severe punishments to grave violators.

Article 66 tackles on unlawfully influencing match results while Article 69 deals about participating in betting. The code and its provisions can be found and referred to in AFC’s official website.