For Neil Etheridge, Daisuke Sato and Simone Rota, nothing beats the feeling of being called up to play for the Philippine Azkals, the country’s men’s national football team. The three are back once more to a squad that is hoping to get one of the 11 spots at stake in the last and final qualifiers for the AFC 2023 Asian Cup.
Standing in their way in Ulaanbaatar are Yemen, Palestine and Mongolia.
With a mixture of young and hungry players, Etheridge, Sato and Rota are easily among the “seniors” in the current national training pool. But make no mistake, in my conversations with the three Azkals icons, they are ready and excited to suit up and lead the team back to the biggest football event in Asia. Incidentally, Etheridge, Sato and Rota were in the Azkals team that beat Tajikistan, 2-1, in 2018 to help the country gain a historic spot in the 2019 Asian Cup in United Arab Emirates.
Etheridge, the goalkeeper of Birmingham FC in the EFL Championship League of the United Kingdom, has been with the team for 14 years now and says he will always be ready to play for the country whenever he is called.
“I think if you get selected for flag and country, the national team, you should always be proud. You should be proud every time you go to the camp, every time you put the shirt on. It’s something that I obviously hold close to my heart, otherwise I wouldn’t have been doing it for 12 years or 14 years now. I enjoy every moment that I come out here and play with the team,” he said.
Sato, on the other hand, is very excited to be with the Azkals again, but is cautious, knowing that their opponents in Ulaanbaatar are no pushovers.
“I believe that no group is easy. I remember the last time during the Asian Cup qualifiers in 2018, it was also a difficult group, but we made it because we created a good team. We fought together and we made sure that everybody helped each other and that’s how we qualified. I believe that even though we have strong opponents, strong teams in our group, we can we can qualify in the Asian Cup,” he said.
For Rota, being included in the national pool is very special, especially as he last played for the national team five years ago. And at 37 years old, he will grab every opportunity to don the national colors with both hands.
Rota added the reunion with Etheridge, Sato and his other teammates in the national team is most welcome to him.
“When I came here, the energy is positive and I’m so happy to meet again my friends from the national team who play abroad. It has been three years since we didn’t see each other,” Rota said.
While much have changed in the national team’s composition, Etheridge and Rota are hopeful that they can share their veteran smarts with the young ones.
“We’ve got some young and energetic players with us, and some enthusiastic kids. But they don’t have the experience that I’ve had in competitions or in playing in the biggest league of the world. As older players, you need to feed off their energy and at the same time, they need to learn from your experience,” Etheridge explained.
“From my point of view, I think we can make it as long as we play like a team. My experience will help and whatever the coach will need from me, I will deliver,” Rota added.
Sato likewise paid tribute to the players who were responsible in making the Azkals, once the minnows in regional football, gain respect from opponents. He said Phil Younghusband, Stephan Schrock, Misagh Bahadoran and the many before them paved for the way for him to play in big and historic tournaments for the country. Sato said these superstars of Philippine football deserved to be recognized for their contributions and efforts to make football relevant in a country obsessed with basketball.
“Phil was an amazing captain. He made sure that everybody is happy. Schrock is an amazing captain as well. He is such a motivator. As athletes, we need him as role model. And I really respect very much because of his sacrifice for the team. That is something that we should appreciate,” Sato said.
But first, the three says the game against Yemen on June 8 is very crucial in the Philippines’ campaign. It has become so important that Sato and company are unanimous in saying that it will make or break the Azkals’ bid in Ulaanbaatar.
“I don’t think about the long term. We have to think first against Yemen. This is the biggest game that we will have in this tournament. If we win the first game, I believe that we can qualify in the Asian Cup,” Sato said.
Etheridge agrees: “Yemen is going to be a tough first game. Obviously it would be extremely nice to get a result in the first game. It’s always nice to get off to a good start.”
Despite the fact that most of their teammates are young, the three vowed to give their all and expect the same from their teammates regardless of who will play in the pitch.
“We have many young players. Me, I’m not so old. I’m 27, but still, we have a lot of energy on the pitch. Also good vibes on and outside the pitch which are very important. It is really nice that they give so many positives to the team, they are really energetic and intense and you can see that in training,” Sato said.
“Every time I do, to put the shirt on, I think 90 or 95% of the time I’ve had a good game and I’ve done everything I can and is no different no matter who the opposition is. I’ve been fortunate enough to play against the biggest teams in the world, I played against Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchested City. Mongolia, Yemen and Palestine are my next three games. And my next three games are as important as any previous game that I played,” Etheridge said.
Etheridge, Sato and Rota are happy that Thomas Dooley is back with the team. And they all agree that Dooley will make the necessarily adjustments to make the squad better and in fighting form despite the many challenges he has to face in the limited time that he has.
“Everyone is trying his best. I don’t want to say that we will qualify or not, but we will do our best,” Rota added.
The national training pool is set to play a tune-up game against an All-Star selection from the Philippines Football League today in Biñan, Laguna. Regardless of the result, Etheridge said what is important is for the team to play together as one. From there, Dooley can at least gauge the capability of the team and make changes. Etheridge is hoping that a good result in Ulaanbaatar will hopefully spark another football revival in the country.
Stay safe. Stay happy peeps!
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