SINGAPORE — As the only Southeast Asian nation in which football is not among its most popular sports, the Philippines' four Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup semi-final appearances since 2010 seem almost inexplicable.
A country whose main sporting interests are in basketball and boxing suddenly rubbing shoulders with football-mad nations like Thailand and Vietnam? How did they go from being regional whipping boys who lost 1-13 to Indonesia in 2002, to upsetting defending champions Vietnam in 2010?
The answer is twofold. The first is billionaire businessman Dan Palami, who became general manager of the Philippines national team in 2009 and bankrolled their hiring of foreign coaches such as Germany's Michael Weiss, American Thomas Dooley and even former England national coach Sven-Goran Eriksson.
The second and more crucial reason is their renewed emphasis on recruiting foreign players with Filipino heritage under Palami. While several other Asean countries have imported foreign talents, the players generally have to become naturalised citizens to be eligible for the national teams.
The Philippines, on the other hand, do not require such a process for their Filipino-heritage players, so they can play on without relinquishing their foreign nationalities.
This meant that, for the past decade, the Azkals have sought out many Europe-based players to bolster their national squad. The likes of the Younghusband brothers from England, Manuel Ott from Germany and, most prominent of all, former English Premier League goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, have represented the Philippines at the Suzuki Cup.
On these two-pronged advantages, Philippines football has made stunning progress in the last decade, with their four Suzuki Cup semi-final appearances being ample proofs of their development.
Ageing squad, but will still be in contention
Can they take the next step to reach the final, or even win the Cup? The notion seems far-fetched even considering the huge strides already made by the Azkals, as many traditionally-strong teams like Thailand, Vietnam, even Malaysia and Singapore, continue to stand in their way.
Furthermore, even with their foreign additions, the Philippines have not exactly set the Suzuki Cup alight with swashbuckling football. More often than not, they banked on being tough to beat, shoring up their defence before hitting on the counter attack.
They will nevertheless be in contention in Group A at this year's tournament in Singapore, where they will face the hosts, Thailand, Myanmar and Timor-Leste. With Thailand favoured to top the group, it could be a three-way fight between the Philippines, Singapore and Myanmar for the second spot to advance into the semi-finals.
The key concern among their fans, as well as head coach Stewart Hall, is an ageing squad: stalwarts such as Ott (29 years old), captain Stephan Schrock (35), playmaker Patrick Reichelt (33) and striker Angel Guirado (36) are all in the late stages of their career. Even their latest naturalised player, the Spanish-born forward Bienvenido Maranon, is already 35 years old.
Will there be a last hurrah for them in Singapore? Given the Filipinos' encouraging progress in the past decade, it would be a great way to send off these veterans with another semi-final appearance.
Whether they can harness such motivation into overcoming the likes of Thailand and Vietnam remains to be seen.