NOW more than ever, football officials and players alike believe that the country’s hosting of the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup group stage for the first time in November will be pivotal in the Azkals’ campaign of achieving a new milestone in the regional football showcase.
“Our hosting the Suzuki Cup is very important because we will be playing in front of our own fans,” said Philippine Football Federation president Mariano Araneta Jr. “We are very hopeful that we can top the group and avoid meeting (defending champion) Thailand in the semifinals.”
Aside from the Thais, the hosts are bracketed in Group A with the Singaporeans and Indonesians, who will be playing in their first major international senior tournament since the International Football Federation lifted their country’s suspension in the recent FIFA Congress held in Mexico.
Araneta revealed that while the Filipino booters would have some tuneup games overseas before the tournament, “we have scheduled majority of their test matches to be held at the Philippine Sports Stadium in Bulacan so they can fully familiarize themselves with the field.”
He pointed out the fact that majority of the players in the national pool are playing with local clubs in the United Football League “so they be can be easily assembled by Coach Thomas Dooley. The league will finish early enough so they can start training as soon as possible for the Suzuki Cup.
“We would like to thank the continued cooperation of the UFL clubs in releasing these players to the national team.”
Filipino-Iranian striker Misagh Bahadoran, whose career has blossomed under Dooley’s watch, was also bullish about the staging of the group eliminations in the country “because we want to show our rivals that we cannot be easily beaten at home.”
Bahadoran acknowledged that the Thais, who booted out the Filipinos in the Suzuki Cup semis two years ago, would be tough. “But I believe we can beat Singapore and Indonesia and reach the semifinals once again.”
Bahadoran is banking on the hometown crowd to come out in full force and watch the games at the Philippine Sports Stadium.
“This is because they provide us with the inspiration and energy we need so we can perform extremely well and beat our opponents,” he said.
Stallion FC coach Ernie Nierras sees the hosting as a “golden opportunity for Azkals to go beyond the semifinals, enter the finals and quite possibly win their first championship.
“Under coach Thomas and with most of our players (in the national pool) in the UFL, the time is ripe for Philippine football to attain a new breakthrough.”
Also the Stallion FC team co-owner, the former national women’s team mentor also urged the other UFL clubs to become engaged and launch their own campaigns in drawing fans to pack the 25,000-capacity Philippine Sports Stadium to the rafters and watch the Azkals play.
“The PFF cannot do it alone in promoting the Azkals and the Suzuki Cup. Like what Stallion FC is now doing, I urge our fellow UFL clubs to go door-to-door and woo our sports fans and support this major event and our team,” Nierras said.