The 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) will be hosted by the Philippines in the latter part of 2019 with men’s football as the biggest team sports that almost all participating nations are going to vie for with much fervor.
With limitations of teams only allowed to be comprised Under-22 players (with the exception of two overaged players) and the competition not falling within the FIFA international break, most senior Azkals (even if their ages falls well within SEAG eligibility) won’t be able to participate in this tournament due to club commitments. Despite these constraints, the Philippine SEAG football team, under the reins of Azkals manager Dan Palami, are preparing to assemble its strongest squad yet as reported in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Such an undertaking and campaign could prove seminal, if successful, as a template for organizing junior national teams for future tournaments.
Beginning mid-August, the Azkals management already held several days of open tryouts which were participated by several top junior prospects and hopefuls, both based locally and abroad.
And during the past September FIFA international break, right when the senior Azkals squad is in the middle of its World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualification campaigns, the initial shortlist of players for the 2019 SEAG were training in Manila.
Despite the early preparations, the task at hand is a monumental one, not only due to the fact that Azkals Management team has been tapped to be involved, but because the junior squad needs to turn its recent fortunes around as well for the better – something which is easier said than done.
THE HARD TRUTH
At the moment, in contrast to the leaps and bounds that the Azkals have achieved in terms of its relative profile in international football, the Philippine junior squads particularly the U-22 and U-23 still have a lot to do in order to close the gap to its other Southeast Asian counterparts.
Recent results by our youth squads have not been so encouraging, as the federation also recently took steps to improve talent identification and development at this level.
However, with the current system of youth football here in the country where the highest level still lies in the collegiate varsity leagues, it is still a far cry to the Philippines’ neighboring footballing nations where the best talents are honed within club system through academies and youth squads.
As the SEAG kicks off, surely traditional powerhouses and contenders will field young players coming from of either academy or club reserves from locally renowned clubs or even first team sensations (not to mention the additional two overage players who are likely to be veteran professionals).
These athletes that the Filipino U-22 SEAG squad will go up against already seasoned footballers, despite their young age, who are experiencing frequent, season-long and grinding competitive football at a high level making it a daunting proposition for the Philippine squad.
Hence, despite the promise and optimism that goes with a tried and tested Azkals management team being directly involved in the preparation of the SEAG men’s football team, expectations still should be tempered with healthy dose of realism.
Given that the U-22 Philippine SEAG squad will be made up mostly of varsity players from various colleges and universities reinforced with some standout youths from the Philippines Football League and two overage players, demanding for a medal finish will be too premature.
With the very high-level of competition and the high-stakes involved when given the profile of the sport, particularly for footballing nations, surviving the group and reaching the semifinals (matching the 1991 edition in Manila) for the Filipinos in Men’s Football will already be considered a resounding success and anything higher than would be a miraculous bonus.
A better expectation from the Philippine Men’s Football Team this 2019 SEAG for sports fans is to avoid lopsided losses. In this stage, with the preparation that is being done and the fact that the biennial tournament will be hosted in the Philippines, national pride is at stake for all sporting events – and that includes football. So a good account of our representatives in terms of competency level should be paramount. The least the Filipinos could expect is for the team to give a good fight.
Grinding out draws against contenders, winning against non-regional powerhouses should be the results to expect from the squad. If losses are inevitable they should not be without a fight. Such factors should be the ones considered as the more rational of expectations.
Basing on what would be the outcome of the Philippines’ campaign in men’s football this 2019 SEAG, if reaching the semifinals is achieved, then it can be considered that the Azkals management’s direct involvement in the junior squad has obvious positive effects and should continue on.
If the campaign turns out to be otherwise, and ends up well below par of expectations, then it proves that there are an even bigger hurdles to conquer internally and they involve improving what is further down the footballing strata: the one that bridges the grassroots and the competitive youth levels of the sport.
2019 SEAG is definitely going to be big for Philippine Football as this could serve as either a turning point, an indicator, or an eye-opener for our country’s state in the sport at the developmental level.