After completing the second leg turnaround with the 4-0 rout of Sri Lanka infront of the boisterous home support, the Azkals (FIFA rank 159) book a ticket into the second round with a home-away fixture with Kuwait (FIFA rank 101). It will be an acid-test for this Philippine team composed of local players reinforced by Fil-Foreigners from different countries and football backgrounds. Leading the way is the ace goalscorer and heart-and-soul Phil Younghusband, first leg savior Nate Burkey, the ever-dependable Chieffy Caligdong, and team captain Aly Borromeo. New talents have re-infused this team with vigor with the likes of Stephan Schrock, Manuel Ott, and Paul Mulders.
Unfortunately, the Azkals have yet to win on the road since defeating tournament defending champion Vietnam in the AFC Suzuki Cup. Their previous games against Sri Lanka and Mongolia ended in a 1-1 draw and 1-2 loss respectively. The defending Gulf Cup of Nations champions are also seeking a place in the sun and qualify for the World Cup for the second time since 1982. Controversies and football scandals rocked this team and rehabilitation is the only way to come back to the world stage. If you are a football fanatic and history buff, you may recognize this unforgettable image when the Kuwaitis almost walked out in their 1982 World Cup group game against France where they eventually lost to the Michel Platini-lead team 4-1.
Under the helm is Serbian Goran Tufegdzic, who also led the team to 2010 WAFF Championship. The players to watch out for is the veteran Waleed Ali, and goal-scoring machine Bader Al-Mutwa, and scoring-mate Khaled Khalaf. An intriguing matchup in the midfield would be their Bosnian league standout Abdul-Aizi Al-Enezi.
However, the Azkals should underestimate this team because they are one of the teams that defeated the Australians in their own pitch. In the 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, Musaed Neda scored a first-half goal against the eventual runners-up Aussies, who were groping for form, and stunned the 20,000 fans in Canberra Stadium. No doubt about the upset but was it a fluke? Nevertheless, this is a clear warning that the Azkals don't have to take so lightly.
We always dream of the Philippines competing in the World Cup. In fact, everyone is! Who doesn't want to be on the top of the world like Germany, Argentina, England, Uruguay, Italy, Spain, and Brazil? But some dreams may end like a broken slumber. This time, the Philippines is building a team like no one else did before. A team assembled from players far and wide, speaking different languages, different countries, and different abilities under one flag. A team dismissed by others as a second-rate team of wannabes and ragtag group of nobodies. Just like a street dog, the Azkals have captured the hearts of many because of their exploits in the football pitch.
Defeating Vietnam has been the flare that made the Azkals an overnight household name. Just like what Smart Gilas stood for our Olympic basketball dreams, the Azkals want to play its role in football's greatest stage - the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Unfortunately, there will be roadblocks ahead because if we ever get pass Kuwait. We have to beat the favorites and contenders in the region.
As we visit Kuwait for the first leg of the fixtures, there is one thing that any Azkal should do - steal a game in Kuwait before heading back to Manila for the clinching game. Looking ahead, the group stages would be tricky because we may be placed in a lighter bracket or with the so-called "group of death." Whatever happens, the Filipino people should keep on supporting.