Football is back

Originally published by Manila Standard Online

Football is definitely back in the country in many ways than one.

The domestic league is about to start within the month and the Philippine Azkals will get to regroup and participate in two friendlies before March ends, and hopefully we get to see Gerrit Barba Holtmannn, the current toast of the Bundesliga after his VfL Bochum side stunned German giants Bayern Munchen in convincing fashion.

Nonong Araneta, the Philippine Football Federation chief, confirmed at least one good news in making this possible.

“May passport na siya. Nakakuha na and we will definitely call him up,” he said.

The Philippine Azkals are expected to take part in the tri-nation football series featuring the Philippines, host Singapore, and Malaysia from March 21 to 29, 2022 at the Lions’ National Stadium as part of the teams’ preparation for the third and final leg of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in China.

The three teams will play each other once. Singapore will compete in Group F against Myanmar, Tajikistan and host Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek. Malaysia, on the other hand, will host Bahrain, Turkmenistan and Bangladesh in Group E hostilities.

Araneta says the dates are FIFA windows – meaning clubs are obligated to release their players to play for their respective national squads.

Which brings us to the discussion on the country’s chances in Ulaanbaatar in June.

Araneta says they expect improved weather in the Mongolian capital three months from now.

“Weather is just right for us. It is neither too cold or too hot because the last time we played there in March, weather was -7 degrees. So when we get there by June, the weather is so much better. Pag-dating ng June, fair weather na du’n,” Araneta explained.

Weather aside, Araneta says the Philippines got a good draw.

“I think Palestine is the weakest among the top teams in the tournament. Our host, Mongolia, we have beaten them before also and they lost 12-0, nothing, I think, against Japan, but has beaten Laos in a close game. We also have a good chance against Yemen. So it’s not a bad draw. It’s a good draw. We have a big chance to qualify,” Araneta said.

The top teams in the six groups will automatically advance and the next best five second placed will also secure their tickets in the tournament proper.

I was so fortunate to cover the 2019 Asian Cup in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, both in the United Arab Emirates, and despite the Azkals losing all their matches in the group stage, the moment that I saw our flag being raised and the Lupang

Hinirang being played for the first time at the continent’s biggest football tournament then was worth all the pain and difficulty in getting there.

Araneta says we have another chance of seeing the sun and the three stars being raised and the Lupang Hinirang being played again in China next year.

Another big factor for the Azkals is the fact that most of the potential players that will be called for national duties will have no problem with regard to their conditioning.

“Most of our players are playing in tournaments in the countries where they are currently based. So fitness will not be a concern. And most of them are playing in the first divisions,” Araneta added.

Despite its domestic concerns, Araneta says Palestine is still the favorite to top Group B. “Palestine will definitely be the team to beat in our group.”

Incidentally, United City FC and Kaya FC Iloilo are in the 2022 AFC Champions League. United City will compete in Group G along with BG Pathum United of host Thailand, Korea’s Jeonnam Dragons and Australia’s Melbourne City.

Kaya, on the other, will have a tougher route to get into the group stage. They will start their bid this March 8 against a team from Australia. The team, however, is coming off from a championship run in the Copa Paulino Alcantara last November. They have to defend that title this March as the Copa begins this March 14, barring any unforseen factors.

Five teams are competing in the opening of the domestic league. Aside from Kaya, United City will also participate along with the Azkals Development Team, Maharlika FC and Mendiola FC 1991.

The opening of the domestic is one step toward football normalcy in the country. It will give local-based Azkals to get considerations in joining the training pool. But more importantly, it is a welcome distraction against the usual, predictable offerings of the circus known as the national poll campaign where a number of clowns, convicted felons, robbers, thieves and other not-so-trustworthy people dominate, according to “reputable” surveys.

If the same principles are being applied in choosing players for the national teams to our local polls, then probably we have better chances of knowing our candidates. But sadly, one can still top the surveys even just for saying a word and its manifestations in 17 minutes.

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