Despite a good year, fight for relevance continues
By the time Stephan Schrock left Biñan Football Stadium on Dec. 3 in the Philippines’ last match in the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the Azkals skipper had already played almost 60 matches for club and country for the year, the most in his career.
It is remarkable to rack up so many matches in 12 months, playing through injuries and keeping a competitive mind-set. But the 33-year-old Schrock wasn’t just a peripheral figure in the games he played in, he was influential in all of those starting with the AFC Asian Cup in January up until early December when he led the Young Azkals to battle in the SEA Games.
In a year where the national team program got a reboot under Scott Cooper following a maiden AFC Asian Cup campaign, it was the Azkals captain who helped make the transition almost seamless. He was the voice and leader, taking the reins from an icon in Phil Younghusband, who retired in early November.And while progress is noticeable, the results were mixed for the Azkals, who held China to a draw at home but also lost twice to Syria in World Cup Qualifying after a maiden Asian Cup campaign where it lost all three matches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi at the start of the year.
That’s why Schrock’s consistency, durability and his unrelenting drive to keep his club, Ceres-Negros, and the Azkals competitive against the continent’s best should be the most significant highlight of the year that passed.
“I’m grateful to display my hard work and skills in the highest stage in the continent,” said Schrock, who was also awarded as one of Southeast Asia’s best 11 players last November. “I’m just happy to raise the flag. But I will always trade any individual honor just to win a trophy for the country.”
Football officials in the country remain hopeful that the impact of strong international performances from Schrock and Co. also translate to more support for the national league, which is welcoming a new sponsor in Qatar Airways next year.
“I think it was generally a good year for Philippine football,” said Philippine Football Federation president Nonong Araneta, who personally worked on acquiring the Qatar Airways deal for the Philippine Football League. “We’ve taken some steps forward, but the expectations will always be high from stakeholders and we have to work harder to meet those expectations in the coming years.”
The SEA Games was actually a showcase of the country’s top young talents. Together with the women’s national team, the Young Azkals put together a magical night in November when both teams beat Malaysia in simultaneous matches held in Biñan and Rizal Memorial Stadium. Their campaigns may have ended in heartbreak with the Young Azkals eliminated on goal difference and the Malditas bowing in the battle for the bronze after taking a one-goal lead against Myanmar, but officials took encouragement that this was the best performance by the country in the biennial meet yet.
“We didn’t go through because of goal difference but I think everybody saw how much different this team is and how better prepared they were,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami. “This is the strongest ever showing by the team I’ve seen the Philippines in the SEA Games.”
The fight for relevance continues for Philippine football.
But with rejuvenated leaders and an irrepressible captain leading the charge, the coming years could see the sport finally reaching its potential in the country.
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