Azkals: The Dark Horse of Southeast Asian Football
In a basketball obsessed nation where you can find a basketball court in nearly every street corner, other sports struggle to dominate the same limelight. Neighboring nations, however, are more interested in football (or, as most Filipinos call it, soccer). Football is actually the most popular sport not just on the Asian continent, but in the entire world.
In spite of basketball's dominance, Filipino football has a devoted following in the Philippines. Specially when The Philippine national football team gears up to represent the motherland. In fact Azkals is actually one of the oldest national teams in Asia. The Azkals have made history more than once. Former team captain Phil Younghusband is part of a rare list of footballers who have netted more than 50 international goals. This list includes the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Pele, Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Younghusband announced his retirement in 2019, but the team still has plenty of powerhouse players in its arsenal like Stephan Shröck, Daisuke Sato, Patrick Reichelt, Alvaro Silva, OJ Porteria and many more. Their number one goal keeper, Neil Etheridge, is the first Southeast Asian in history to get promoted from the second tier English football league and play in one of the top leagues in the world: the English Premier League. Another shining gem among the Azkal's past players is Elmer "Lacknet" Bedia, who is now a football coach and runs his own academy. When asked what it was like to play football for the Philippines, Bedia told Samahan Filipino:
''A great honour to represent the Philippines for 13 years, that’s why I give back what this sport has given me. By visiting places back home to play and teach football to kids.''
Bedia may be retired from the sport, but his legacy lives on. The Azkals have been making waves in the football scene, lately. In 2018, they reached the semi-finals of the AFF Championship. In 2019, they qualified for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time, where they faced off against Asia's top teams, South Korea and China.
Samahan Filipino also spoke with Azkals winger and attacking midfielder OJ Porteria regarding the national team's future and his message to all the Filipino fans. Here's what he has to say!
''I’m optimistic about the future of the National Team. It’s not always easy having scarce training sessions together, but with the quality of players that we have, I’m sure we can make the Philippines proud. My message to the fans is thank you to everyone who have supported us in the past and for those who continue to support us. We have a lot of games coming up and hope to see everyone there!''
While the Azkals have yet to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, with the impressive talent they have on their roster, it's only a matter of time before the Azkals become recognized worldwide. The Azkals are more than a football team: they are a symbol of the Filipino spirit, and proof of how far hard work and determination can take us all.