After the Philippine Women’s National Football Team (PWNFT) bowed to powerhouse Korea Republic in the semifinals of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Pune, India, Sarina Bolden, the Malditas’ forward, had these words to say.
“A lot of people doubted us [but], we came in here and fought every single game and now have made a name for ourselves. Philippines, you’re gonna remember this team. And you’re going to see us in the World Cup. Don’t forget about us because we are coming back,” Bolden vowed.
Despite the odds being stacked against the Malditas even before the actual start of the tournament, the team became the toast of the tournament for scoring so many firsts.
The Malditas ended a 12-game losing skid against Thailand, 1-0, in their opening game, despite several players missing because of COVID-19 protocols. While they suffered a 4-0 defeat against Australia, they were able to hold the Matildas scoreless for 50+ minutes.
Australia was the highest-ranked country the Philippines, whether the Azkals or Malditas, ever faced in football.
A 6-0 win against the Indonesians powered the team to their first-ever stint past the group stage in the competitions. The dramatic win against Chinese Taipei sent the Malditas to their first-ever World Cup appearance in the country’s history.
“I would say that this team has grown so much, just like in the past couple of years and look how far we’ve com. We were playing against Myanmar. Nepal and now we’re competing against Australia [and) Korea. I’m so freaking proud,” Bolden added.
The Malditas have every right to be proud of their accomplishments in their best-ever campaign in the Asian Cup, despite flying under the radar and were just an afterthought prior to their giant-killing spree. Out of nowhere, a young and unknown but gritty bunch of Filipinas to the World Cup.
Even head coach Alen Stajcic, a coach for several decades, couldn’t hide the impact of the Malditas’ Cinderella like run in India.
“I think this is probably the best experience in my coaching career. I’ve been coaching for 20 years, to take this group, who are so dedicated, so determined, so much disciplined, so much heart, so much spirit, considering what they had to overcome to reach this point,” Stajcic beamed.
Ironically, the Matildas got bundled out of the tournament when they lost 1-0 to South Korea in the quarterfinals. Stajcic used to coach the Matildas for five years, 2014-2019, before moving on and eventually accepting the offer to lead the Malditas on their quest for a spot in the World Cup last October.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had to coach a group, who had so many hurdles to overcome just in the preparation let alone in the tournament. And to give to this level and to fight and compete until the last kick of the semifinal is truly just a remarkable effort,” Stajcic added.
Even before the Malditas could return to the Philippines or to their respective mother teams, the Philippine Football Federation has already set into motions its plans to sustain the momentum and the gains of securing a World Cup spot.
First on its list is to extend Stajcic’s contract until the World Cup next year to include his staff—strength and conditioning coach Luca Tonetti ad Nahuel Arrate.
Second, it needs to assemble a better and stronger team to compete against the best of the world 18 months from now.
“We will open again the tryouts for the team. After this, siyempre, we have a lot of preparations to do kung sino hindi puwede at kung sino ang puwede. It will also depend on the coaching staff. I can’t say who will compose the team because it will really depend on the coaching staff,” Nonong Araneta, PFF president, said.
Araneta said the team will also participate in three major tournaments prior to the World Cup. If he agrees to the extension, Stajcic will lead the team that will compete in the Hanoi Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam, the ASEAN Football Championships in Manila, and at the Asian Games in China. As of now, Araneta says he is overwhelmed by the attention and support given to the Malditas not only in the country but in the whole world.
According to Araneta the country will host the AFF Women’s Championships in July or August this year.
“We have done something. The team has done something to wake them up and to merit their attention and support to the team. And I hope they continue to follow, support and pray for the team,” Araneta mused.
As the Malditas take a breather, attention is now being focused on their men’s counterparts, the Philippine Azkals, who are bent to assemble a strong squad for the third round of 2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers in China in June and the U-23 Team set to compete in the AFF U-23 Championships a week from now. Araneta says the federation is still gunning for a possible camp in March for the senior team despite challenges being posed by COVID-19 protocols all over the world.
Araneta says plans to hold the camp in Spain or in Singapore are still in the works.
“We are still arranging for that [camp] para lahat ng players namin can come and join kasi may mga bagong players kami na sasama sa team, especially our player na is Gerrit Holtmannn in March so that our players can come and join because FIFA days naman ‘yun,” Araneta said.
Holtmann currently plays for newly-promoted Bundesliga side Vfl Vochum in the German top division. Holtmann won the 2021 Bundesliga Goal of the Year for his scintillating solo effort against Mainz last August 21. The Azkal received the ball just inside Mainz’s half side of the field, then dribbled past five defenders before firing the sensational goal in the 21st minute to power his side to a 2-0 win.
Araneta believes the Malditas’ recent achievement in the India Asian Cup will inspire the Azkals to do better, too, in China.
“Any achievement in football will motivate the teams—whether men’s or women’s—will further motivate them to play better. Ang akin naman, of course we have to qualify in the 2023 Asian Cup and I hope that the next target is to be in the quarterfinals of the tournament. Huwag naman ‘yung hanggang group stage lang tayo. Dapat makapasok tayo sa quarterfinals, maganda na ‘yun,” Araneta added.
The Under-23 squad has already cleared quarantine protocols in Phnom Penh as of Sunday and were given permission to practice as they prepare for the AFF U-23 Championships in Cambodia. The U-23 will play against Timor Leste on Monday, February 14, 2022, 4pm local time, at the Morodok Techo National Stadium to open their campaign.
“Despite the short time to train, we started to train two or three weeks ago, the team is capable of playing well and hopefully, they get to finish second in the group and enter the next round. ‘Yun ang target natin,” Araneta said.
While football is currently the toast of Philippine sports right now, Araneta is hoping that the attention given to the sport will spark the support it needed to start the domestic league.
Araneta says at least seven teams have signified their intention to join the league, which is set to start next month.
“I hope maging totoo. We are going to start with our league kasi nasa Alert Level 2 na tayo. [And the Malditas’ exploits] will bring more interest to the league, to the teams, and to football in the country in general. Hopefully, lahat sila [fans] will follow all the leagues and tournaments that will be hosted by the country,” Araneta added.