Last Wednesday, the Philippine Football Federation has made it official that Thomas Dooley, the former Philippine Azkals’ coach, will have another opportunity to lead the team reach the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
“After much deliberation, haggling and intense discussion amongst the committee and the PFF, it was decided that we will have Thomas Dooley as head coach for the Azkals in the qualifiers. His term of contract will be amended if the Azkals qualify to the Asian Cup,” Dan Palami, team manager, said.
Dooley, who led the Azkals to qualify for the first time in the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates three years ago, will coach the team as it aims to grab one of the 11 slots in the third and final qualifying round next month in the biggest continental football event. For the Azkals to return in the Asian Cup, Dooley needs to muster the team to gain favorable results against Palestine, Yemen and host Mongolia at the MFF Stadium in Ulaanbaatar from June 8 to 14.
Dooley, who started the national pool’s training camp last Wednesday, was realistic in saying it would be foolish to assume that Azkals will have a picnic in the Mongolian capital.
“It’s very difficult to say because not everybody’s here, which is why we would start the camp formally on the 30th (May). And the Federation said we should start earlier. That’s whywe started a little bit earlier and the good thing is that I can see some of the U-23 players in person. I see them just in the game and have an idea how they are gonna play and what kind of person they are. And in those five or six days before we make a decision for the 30 players [who will go to Mongolia], it is important to get to know them a little bit better,” Dooley said.
On the team’s first day of camp, only 14 were at the Rizal Memorial Stadium and Dooley’s coaching staff was not present due to a miscommunication. Dooley is also aware that several members of the squad are currently signing up with their new clubs overseas, which only adds to the difficulty of assembling the best possible team for Ulaanbaatar.
“Some of the players will not be in the squad [but] they are filling up. So that is that is a positive sign that we can actually do something and I can get to know the players a little bit. The bad part is the timing – in Europe, some of the players are signing in new clubs and that will be very, very difficult and that’s something that will make some of the players to not show up,” Dooley explained.
Despite these challenges, Dooley remains cautiously positive.
“The chances are there. Anything is possible. When you look at the rankings, we are around 133 and Yemen is 150 or 140. We had battles with Yemen all the time and Yemen, since April, is in a camp and training twice a day with everybody. So if somebody thinks that this will be a nice, easy game for us to win against Yemen, that will be the first and thebiggest mistake. And then you play against Mongolia. And obviously, Palestine is ranked 100th and we are ranked in the 133rd. If you go by the rankings, we have no chance,” Dooley said.
Dooley has also accepted the fact that even with the most noble intentions from all Azkals playing in different leagues all over the world, some of them will not able to make the team.
“I’m not getting all the players on the 25th. I’m not getting all the players on the 30th. I’m not getting all the players because we can we can’t force them to come in and I’m okay with that.”
“So we have to deal with the players we have and that’s why we have to select the players and we have to be very, very direct. My philosophy in the camp and that it has to be very, very positive and the energy has to be right,” Dooley said.
Dooley was first tapped to coach the Azkals in 2014. During his first year in the team, he led the Azkals to 10 wins, four draws and four losses. He eventually compiled a record of 20 wins, 11 draws and 15 losses in his five-year stay with the Azkals. The team also recorded 72 goals which was a testament to the offense that Dooley brought to the team.
With Dooley at the helm, the Azkals reached its highest ever FIFA ranking with 111 in May 2018. The team is currently 133rd in the March 31, 2022 rankings.
Dooley was fortunate to have Phil Younghusband, Javier Patiño, Misagh Bahadoran and other strikers in the squad then. These Azkals icons are no longer with the team and only a handful remains with squad like Neil Etheridge, Stephan Schrock, Daisuke Sato, and Amani Aguinaldo, among others. The upside, however, is that there are many new Azkals who are hungry and eager to sustain the passion and honor to play for flag and country.
Which brings us to probably the most unavoidable question that is needed to be asked. Did the PFF commit a mistake when it let Dooley go months before the 2019 Asian Cup?
“I told the Federation at that time that it is a mistake when you have a team then at its highest level ever, having won the biggest success in its history, the highest rankings in its history, and then you changing a coach five months before the biggest tournament is suicide. It’s not about me. It’s about nobody would change the coach when it is that good,” Dooley said.
But that is water under the bridge now. Dooley says the team needs to focus on the tasks at hand, and foremost of which is to beat Yemen on June 8.
“We’re not focusing on Palestine. We’re not focusing on on Mongolia. We are focusing on Yemen. And I’m focusing from the first day we get into the hotel. Everything will be positive. Everything will be in one direction,” Dooley said.
In these times of uncertainty, staying positive is the best thing we can do right now. It might not be easy, but then again nothing is easy in the first place.
Stay safe. Stay happy peeps!
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