Football is one sport where a medal has virtually eluded the Philippines in the Southeast Asian Games. Save for a bronze medal finish by the women’s team in the 1985 edition of the Games, the cupboard has been bare.
Men’s football, in particular, has struggled, to put it nicely. While the women’s team has two top four finishes on top of their bronze medal, the men’s team has only one top four finish to show. This came in 1991 when Manila was host, with the team bowing to Singapore 0-2 in the bronze medal match.
In the last edition of the SEA Games, held in Singapore two years ago, the women’s tournament was not held. The men’s tournament was ruled by many-time champion Thailand, and the Philippines, sadly, was in a familiar spot, suffering four defeats and getting outscored 11-2.
For this SEAG, though, there is optimism coming out of the men’s team. They still aren’t among the favorites, but they believe they are much more competitive than two years ago.
“Mas matagal ang preparation namin ngayon,” says team captain Ian Clariño moments after the team dropped a 1-2 decision to Philippines Football League (PFL) team Davao Aguilas in a friendly at the Rizal Stadium. “Mas naging bonded kami. Talagang sama-sama kami. Last SEA Games, naka-prepare lang kami for three weeks. Sumabak na kami sa Singapore. Ngayon, naka-prepare kami for two months.”
Part of that preparation included an intense training camp in Japan, plus exposure to top-level Asian competition in the AFC U22 qualification tournament. The Philippines emerged winless from the AFC tournament after being bracketed with powerhouses China and Japan and host Cambodia, but the experience was invaluable.
“Maganda na nakapag training camp kami sa Japan,” Clariño continues. “Magandang experience namin sa Cambodia facing two good teams Japan and China. Ang dami namin natutunan. Gumawa kami ng sarili naming pattern ginawa namin sa game na lumabas na maganda.”
Clariño, who helped lead the University of the Philippines to the UAAP crown last year, will join a roster composed of the best young footballers the country has to offer. Aside from him, also heading to Kuala Lumpur are the last two UAAP MVPs Daniel Gadia of UP and Jarvey Gayoso of Ateneo, Gadia’s UP teammates Ace Villanueva and Christian Lapas, Gayoso’s Ateneo teammates UAAP Rookie of the Year Jordan Jarvis and Jay-Ra Rocha, and promising 18-year-old Cagayan De Oro native Troy Limbo. Rounding up the team are Nimrod Balabat, Junell Mark Bautista, Valentino Calvo, Jaime Vicenzo Cheng, Reymart Cubon, Roberto Corsame Jr, Kouichi Belgira, Dylan Alain Lucienne De Bruycker, Ray Joseph Joyel, Rey Franco Miguel De La Torre, Yoshiharu Koizumi, and Richard Talaroc, Jr.
The team will be coached by Marlon Maro, a former national player who was part of the 1991 team that shocked Malaysia at the Rizal Stadium. In case you’re wondering where Phil and James Younghusband and the other Azkals are, the SEA Games football tournament is only for players under 23 years old.
“We’re a mix of old players and (new) players,” says Gadia, who will be on his second tour of duty at the SEA Games along with Clariño. “Some of us played before in the SEA Games. I think the chemistry is good and the coaching staff are doing their job handling everything. We look forward to maybe bringing home a medal. We’re looking forward to winning each game. We covered everything we needed to cover.”
In Kuala Lumpur, the Philippines has been bracketed with defending champion Thailand, contender Vietnam, always dangerous Indonesia, plus Cambodia and Timor Leste. It will be an uphill battle to secure one of the two spots to the semifinals, especially with the Thais and Vietnamese looming as the favorites to advance, but Gadia has faith in this team.
“I think the coaches will find a way to beat those big teams. They are good at scouting teams and players. We will take it one game at a time.” Gadia
The midfielder is also impressed with the talent level of his teammates.
“All the players are good, especially Jarvey Gayoso, Troy Limbo, Jay-Ra Rocha. They are starting 11 on their clubs. Each one has different strengths. They’re all standouts.”
As the veterans on the team, Clariño knows he and Gadia have to lead the way if they are to make history in Kuala Lumpur.
“We are an extension of the coaches on the field. Kailangan pa namin mag-assert on the field. Sa labas, doon lang kami matutulungan ng coach. Pagdating sa loob, kami-kami na ang kailangan magtulungan.”
Clariño also has an appeal for Filipino fans in Malaysia.
“Please support the U22 national team. Win or lose, we’ll make you proud.”
Gadia, on the other hand, is hoping to see some familiar faces in the crowd when they take the field.
“I have titas working in Malaysia as OFWs,” he revealed. “For me, this is for them and for all the Filipinos there. I hope they come and watch because we prepared so hard this time. We sacrificed a lot, we sacrificed our family time to come to camp. They need to watch football, not just basketball or volleyball.”
The men’s team plunges into action on August 15 against Cambodia at the Selayang Municipal Council Stadium. Here’s hoping they get off to a flying start.
Other team previews: