Azkals take first steps | Inquirer Sports

Azkals take first steps

Coach Sven Goran Eriksson gather the PH Azkals during a break in practice ahead of their debut Asian Cup match on Monday against South Korea.—mfalkesgaard Instagram

DUBAI—It doesn’t get any bigger than this for the Philippine Azkals.

Long regarded as one of the continent’s weakest teams, the Azkals finally take a bow in Asian football’s grandest stage as they begin their AFC Asian Cup campaign on Monday night in this bustling Emirate city where close to 700,000 Filipinos reside.

When the Azkals step on the pitch at Al Maktoum Stadium for the showdown against continental giant South Korea at 5:30 p.m. (9:30 p.m. in the Philippines), they will mark another milestone for a country where the sport has been an afterthought.

Azkals coach Sven Goran Eriksson has instilled a strong belief in his side, that with some luck, they could get a result against a country that regularly plays in the World Cup.

“We have a lot of respect against Korea, but we should not be afraid [against them],” said Eriksson, who took England to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002 and 2006.

“We should go out and play our type of football. Of course Korea will play. They are a strong opponent. But we cannot just defend.”

“Everyone in the world of football expects Korea not to lose. The players are focused and have been training very well. We’ll see what we can do. We are very optimistic.”

It will be a moment to savor for everyone involved in the team from captain Phil Younghusband down to the 22 other players in the squad as they finally get their reward for the hard work and sacrifice they put in just to thrust Philippine football into the continent’s elite.

As the lowest ranked team in Group C with China and Kyrgyzstan, the Azkals have no illusion that the tournament will be a trouble-free coming-out party. And with the Koreans as their first assignment, they cannot expect any favors from the 1956 and 1960 champions.

“It will be tough and they’re obviously the favorites in our group and favorites for the competition,” said Younghusband.

“When the draw was made I was happy that we’ve got one of the big teams. It will be a great experience for the team. It will sort of put in perspective and give us a gauge of where we really are as a team and how far we really need to go to compete with teams in Asia.”

The Azkals can also draw inspiration from what the Koreans achieved in the Fifa World Cup last year when they stunned 2014 champion Germany, 2-0, in the group stage.

Portuguese coach Paolo Bento will be without Tottenham striker Son Heung-min but youngsters Kim Min-jae and Hwang In-beom and Lee Jae-sung pose a heavy scoring threat for the Koreans.

It will be the fist competitive meeting between the countries since Koreans’ 5-0 demolition of the Azkals in the 1978 Asian Cup preliminary in Manila.

“I think it will be a good game,” said Younghusband.

“It will be tough. We’ll need a bit of luck. I think if we can keep it close. We can keep it competitive. You will never know. There’s been some big shocks in football. When you step on that field, give everything we’ve got, who knows what could happen in that game, but it will be tough.”

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