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The Will to Compete

It is being pointed out in blogs and Internet bulletin boards that I have been browsing after the World Cup qualifier first leg match that the Philippines was soundly beaten by a superior team – meaning Kuwait – and one that has more skilful individual players. I am not about to disagree with the obvious; do we not all have eyes, after all? But when this is pointed out within the context of the Philippines simply accepting the inevitable and taking the plaudits for having come this far, that is when I will have to disagree.

A lot the swivel-chair critics know about the game, of course; particularly those who jumped onto the bandwagon only after the Suzuki Cup campaign and the sweet-and-sticky Phil-Angel affair. The superiority of the Kuwaiti team is undeniable; but if the Philippines takes on the field at the Rizal Memorial on Thursday without thinking that it can at least compete, then it will be better for each and every player to go back home to whichever part of the world they come from and plant camote instead.

The principles of management are the same, whatever the context: be it within a large corporation, an SME, a football team or a herd of baboons – maybe this bit about the baboons is a tad over. These principles call for the awareness of one’s owns strengths and weaknesses; and the taking into consideration of the opportunities and threats there are in the environment.

Thus, it is not so much the individual superiority of each player that counts but how these players put together their talents within the context of the team game. Using Kuwait itself as an example, was its football not more effective in the second half when its players started stringing together rapid-fire passes against a tiring Philippine team? This was when Kuwait’s superior individuals started performing together cohesively to create synergy; just as the Philippines – for most of the match, at least – played cohesively at the back to create defensive synergy.

The Philippines was simply playing to its strengths while being aware that it does not possess the sort of creative players that Kuwait has. As everyone saw, even playing this way presented opportunities. Lest the critics forget, Phil Younghusband was put through on goal in a one-on-one with the Kuwaiti goalkeeper when, to put it simply, it was easier to score than to miss.

From the ensuing corner, Angel Guirado hit the crossbar; and before the half was over, Younghusband also rattled the crossbar with a fierce drive just top of the box. A couple of inches lower and these chances would have meant two precious away goals! Had any of these chances hit the back of the net, I wonder where the critics would have been hiding?

Lest the critics again forget, in the South Africa World Cup of 2010, Spain – arguably the most technically gifted team of the current generation – arrived as European champion but actually lost its opening game against the Swiss. The Spaniards passed and passed but could not get past the Swiss defensive wall that stood as tall as the Alpine range.

Would we have expected the Swiss to play in the same way the Spaniards could? It would have been foolhardy to have done so. The Swiss did not have the sort of technical players that the Spaniards had! The Swiss, therefore, simply played in a way that was suitable to the type of players they had.

The beauty of cup competitions, unbeknownst to the new fans, is that the so-called minnows can actually stand next to the so-called giants without actually having to explain how they approach a game. The onus is always on the giant to win; and the romanticism of cup competitions comes from when the giants are actually slain by the minnows in these one-off ties.

To get back to the Kuwait match, where the Philippines could perhaps have done better was in factoring in the environment – I mean, literally, the environment – into team tactics. Lord knows I have said this often enough in the last few posts that it is beginning to bore even me. Were it up to me – and here I invoke the same privilege of the swivel-chair critic – I would have sent no more than three players up for the corner from which Guirado’s header struck the crossbar and Kuwait subsequently broke to score its opening goal.

I would not have minded even if we had no shots at the Kuwait goal; for the simple reason that I would have had my eyes firmly fixed on the return leg in Manila. Intelligent fans were screaming on Facebook walls before the game for us to “park the bus.” To me, that meant that there are indeed thinking fans who know where we stand in world football and where we want to go; and that these fans are prepared to accept even the same defensive style that the Swiss employed to great success against the Spaniards. Regrettably – or, at least to my mind – the bus left the parking lot too often in the first half. Had we factored in environment into team tactics, we would not be talking about the first half alone.

Even if we progress no more along the road to Brazil 2014, the mere fact that we will be hosting Kuwait at the Rizal Memorial in a full international fills my heart with so much pride already. This sort of thing, to put things plain and simply, was inconceivable less than a year ago.

The Philippine team’s management has always maintained, to begin with, that getting to Brazil has never been thought of as a realistic target, anyway. Good management thinks both short term and long term. The short term is that we are in the main tournament of the AFC Challenge Cup and are gaining experience in World Cup qualification. Long term is probably not even the World Cup of 2018 but the one in Qatar in 2022 and beyond. Long term is also probably the crop of youngsters around the country who started to play the game as a consequence of Azkal-mania.

Meanwhile, if this Kuwait tie tells us anything at all, it is that we now have, if not a great team, at least a decent one; one that is looked upon with respect internationally. We may not have a team yet that is capable of getting to the World Cup; but we have the core of a team that can even win more accolades in the near future.

Make no mistake about it; Neil Etheridge – on the basis of the Kuwait game alone – is the real thing. Forget the goals that he let in; the lad was faultless for each of these. It was in those situations when he could actually do something that he showed the material he is made of. That punch under pressure of a right wing cross in the first half had me simply gushing. It is hard to believe that the lad is a mere twenty-one years.

He has been the subject of some negative publicity of late; and the bashers who probably do not know a thing about football in the first place ought to know that, on the basis of that Kuwait performance alone, if there was any member of the England coaching staff who happened to be watching, he would have been kicking himself for not having moved quicker to persuade him to pledge his allegiance to the Queen, instead.

While Stephan Schrock might have attracted all the attention of late – and rightly so; the lad is a bundle of energy – I was more impressed with Paul Mulders. Even at left-back of both legs of the Sri Lanka tie, it was already apparent that the lad has the vision and the composure to bring this team forward. What I particularly like about him are his awareness and how he brought team-mates into the game. That is the trademark of a good link-man; and I salivate at the thought of a partnership with Manny Ott.

For the meantime, though, full steam ahead to Thursday when we have to welcome some really skilful and fleetfooted Kuwaitis. Who knows, maybe will see a modern miracle? At the very least, though, what every true Filipino football fan wishes to see among our players is the will to compete. I sincerely doubt that any of the boys will let us down.

As a coach, I used to tell my boys that all I really ever wanted to see from each of them was to always try their best in every game; because often that was good enough to bring victory. If it did not, there was equal glory and definitely no shame in having given everything, competed against and – ultimately – being on the same field as a superior team. That, at the end of the day, is what football – and any sport – is really all about.

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