By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter
THE Philippine national men’s football team is in the process of preparing for its return to top-flight international competition in June.
The Azkals are to see action next month in the joint 2022 International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) World Cup and 2023 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup qualifiers in Suzhou, China, which will mark their return to the field after the forced long break they had because of the pandemic.
Speaking at an online press conference on Wednesday, Azkals officials and executives of the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) shared they are now busy working on assembling a formidable team for the competition and plotting the squad’s preparation in the lead-up.
PFF President Mariano Araneta said given the difficulty of holding training in the country, the team will set up camp in Qatar beginning May 18.
“Given the current situation here, we have decided to do the training camp in Qatar. We have communicated with the Qatar Football Association about the possibility of accommodating us,” he said.
“Good thing as well that there are other teams that will be there so that we can have friendly matches. I think one is Palestine and the other is Syria before we go to China.”
The team is looking to bring in a total of 26 players for the training camp, which will last until May 31.
From said pool will come the final 23 players who will banner the country’s campaign in the joint qualifiers.
Azkals coach Scott Cooper said given the long layoff, they are carefully evaluating the players to be called up for the camp.
“As far as the squad selection goes, it’s still ongoing. We’re still looking at the relevance of players, the current form they’re at, where they’re at in their careers, their injury record and what they’re doing currently,” he said.
The coach was delighted to report that the players have been receptive to participating considering the pandemic and no one has declined an invitation even as he reiterated that safety of the players and staff is always a primary consideration and that they are not forcing anyone against their will.
The Azkals coach and team manager Dan Palami said veterans Stephan Schrock and Neil Etheridge remain committed to playing for the team in the qualifiers while the inclusion of naturalized player candidate Bienvenido Maranon is also being looked at, depending on whether his naturalization papers are signed in time for the training camp.
New players from overseas like Michael Kempter, Gerrit Holtmann, and Raphael Obermair are also in the running, Mr. Palami said.
The Azkals are expected to release the names of those called up in the coming days.
The Philippines is currently at third place in Group A of the qualifiers with seven points from a 2-1-2 record, behind Syria (5-0-0) with 15 points, and China (2-1-1) with seven.
Maldives (2-0-3) and Guam (0-0-5) round out the group.
The Azkals last played in the qualifiers in November 2019, losing to Syria (1-0) in Dubai.
Scheduled qualifying matches of the team in 2020 failed to push through because of the pandemic.
The Philippine men’s football team is to face Guam on June 3, then China on June 9, and Maldives on June 15.