When Dan Palami said that the Philippine Azkals are in transition, he wasn’t really kidding. The Designated Kit Man dropped by at the Rizal Memorial Stadium the other day, and it hit me right away that gone are the old and familiar faces, most of them anyway, that are the usual fixtures when a training pool is being assembled in preparation for a major tournament.
Most of the players on the pitch and on the sidelines are young, with the exception of a few “seniors” like Stephan Schrock, Mark Hartmann, Kenshiro Daniels, Pika Minegishi, and Daniel Gadia. Even fan favorite Marco Casambre can be considered as one of the elders now in the team.
A look in the list of foreign-based Azkals called to the camp is also without the familiar names such as Neil Etheridge, Gerrit Holtmann, Daisuke Sato, and Patrick Reichelt, among others. This is probably due to the fact that the Mitsubishi Electric Cup 2022 schedule doesn’t fall under FIFA dates, which means clubs are not obligated to release players to play for their national teams. Which only adds more possibility that, literally, a new Azkals team will start its campaign in Cambodia less than a month from now.
Shrugging aside the what-ifs and the fond memories of the many great Azkals who played for flag and country, most of the players in the camp may not be easily recognizable, and it’s hard to match the names and the faces yet. But there are things that are quite certain. The younglings exude the hunger, the aspirations and even the fire of those who came in before them. And their “kuyas” are there to help and set an example for them to follow. Which at this point is the positivity that the team needs.
Defender Yrick Gallantes and goalkeeper Julian Schwarzer are just two of the youngsters representing the Azkals Development Team in the camp.
Gallantes, who is just 21, maintains that representing Philippine football is always a big deal for him. Despite being called and invited to camps before, Gallantes says the feeling will never get old.
“To be here and be able to be with them and speak with the senior team members like Mark Hartmann, Kenshiro Daniels and especially, Schroecky (Stephan Schrock) is always another learning step up for me,” Gallantes said.
Schwarzer, on the other hand, is visibly stoked to be in the camp competing for a spot to man the sticks. But unlike his initial call, this invite means a lot to the 23-year-old goalie.
“This is different because the first one was just for a friendly. This is my first competitive tournament I’ve been involved in and hopefully, I’ll get selected on the final squad. That is the aim that it will be my first competitive debut,” he said.
Schwarzer knows that he is up against strong opposition for the number “one” spot in the team. But this reality doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
“Of course I love to play. I know we’ve got tough competition with Anthony Pinthus and Kevin Ray Mendoza who are both excellent goalkeepers. They have been there longer but hopefully, I can make my mark. I’ve been very consistent in the league. If I can continue that consistency, that would be amazing for me and I can only strive to work as hard as I can and train everyday and hopefully perform under the big stage. If the opportunity comes, I’m ready,” Schwarzer said.
The same can be said about Pinthus, who is just a year older than Schwarzer. He says it has been his goal to represent the country.
“My future goal is to be the number one when Neil Etheridge retires. But there is good competition. I mean Julian (Schwarzer) is now very good and Kevin (Mendoza) is having an amazing season in Malaysia,” he said.
He added that he is looking forward to the camp and is very excited to know who will start for the Azkals in the Mitsubishi Cup. “You know what is clear in our team, in the Azkals, is that there is no problem for goalkeepers. All our goalkeepers are amazing,” Pinthus said.
Pinthus said aside from the honor of representing the Philippines, playing for the Azkals means opening new opportunities for him. While he loves to play in the domestic league—he mans the posts for United City FC (UCFC) in the Philippines Football League—Pinthus hopes to play overseas where the level of play and competition is higher and more intense.
“I’m thinking of making a transfer this year or at the latest in January. I hope to get two more caps from the Azkals so that I can move to Thailand. Malaysia is my choice too,” he explained.
Defender Simen Lyngbø and Pinthus’ teammate at UCFC is happy, too, that he was in the camp, his first invite since 2019.
“It feels good to be here. Hopefully, we can prepare as soon as possible to make sure that we get good results in the tournament. And it is also good to be together again. We are here to perform, win matches and get points.”
Lyngbø is also aware that Azkals fans expect much from them right now and at a time that the team is facing a crucial moment in its history.
“It is a very exciting time that we’re going into right now. We have to give the older batch much credit for the work they have done in the past. And it’s up to us now to bring that forward and continue the good legacy by getting results in the upcoming tournament and to find our identity on the pitch,” he added.
Which brings us to Schrock. The Pinoy football icon says he is happy with the things are going on in the camp and for the Azkals as well.
“We know their strengths, their skills and how good they are. So far the team is working very hard and it’s a very promising start into the camp,” he said.
The Azkal elder revealed that the camp is missing two to three local-based players but overall they already have a good number. Which is enough to form the core of the team.
“Obviously, we have a very young and inexperienced team right now but we have to start somewhere. It’s very good that we started already and that we have three and a half weeks to prepare things and it’s the best way we ever had. It was a smart move for the Akals management to start early. ” Schrock explained.
As of now, the youngest player in the camp is just 17-years-old and the average age is from 20 to 23-years-old.
“Once the new coach arrives, I think he will sort out pretty quickly what he wants and what type of player he wants at the camp. Other than that, I’m pretty confident that the most important right now is for everyone to be healthy through the first week because they had a week off before and I see some heavy legs already. But I’m happy that we have a good team right here,” Schrock added.
Speaking of the FIFA World Cup, the shocking upsets made by Japan and Saudi Arabia in the opening week of the biggest football event in the planet give hope that nothing is eternal in football and that the ball is indeed round.
Japan came back from a goal down to bring down four-time winners Germany, 2-1 while the Saudis stunned Argentina with the same score. Moreover, Saudi Arabia ended La Albiceleste’s 37 winning streak and added woes to Lionel Messi’s quest to win the cup for his country.
Just hoping that the victories by the Blue Samurai and the Green Falcons may inspire our Azkals and other underdog teams all over that anything is possible in the beautiful game. That even the most unheralded and often taken for granted teams are capable of slaying the mighty and the heavily-favored giants of the game.
But more importantly, having the faith, the heart and the courage to fight back when all things seem lost are more important than having the biggest names and the so-called experts putting you down even before the start of the competitions. This is why football is a great equalizer.
Just like in life, laban lang peeps!
Please tune in to 3PTS–Pambansang Tambayan ng Sports this coming Sunday, November 27, from 2 to 3 p.m. at DZME 1530. The Designated Kit Man and partner Rommel Miranda will get the opportunity to catch up with Grandmaster Jayson Gonzales and the country’s first-ever Woman Grandmaster Janelle Mae Frayna and get to know more about exciting developments on chess in the country and the tournaments they look forward to in the coming new year.
MMA siblings Drex and Denice Zamboanga will also join us on the program.
Stay safe. Stay happy peeps!
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