Football's restorative qualities have again been shown recently in the Philippines, the south-east Asian nation devastated by a deadly typhoon in early November. The disaster, known as Haiyan, left over 5,000 people dead and 20,000 others injured, with the losses still mounting as more victims become known. While the entire nation has defied the ongoing hardships to begin restoring normal life, an important role is being played by its football fraternity.
A fundraising activity was recently held at the country’s Mercato Bonifacio Global City to coincide with the Philippines national team’s friendly match away to India on 15 November. Coach Michael Weiss has vowed to "give something back to the people in difficulties in Philippines", and his team responded, with Phil Younghusband cancelling out India skipper Sunil Chhetri's opener to earn a 1-1 draw.
The result helped the Philippines move four places up the latest edition of FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking to reach an all-time high position of 133. And while this might be seen as a small step, such positive news triggered massive media coverage as football found its place among the Haiyan-dominated headlines. Finally, the Filipino people had something to cheer.
The national team, nicknamed Azkals, had been playing an inspirational role even prior to the disaster. In October's Philippines Peace Cup, staged in Bacolod, Weiss' side received an unusual wake-up call in the morning of the closing matchday when a 5.2-magnitude earthquake shook the city and sent the players scampering out of their hotel rooms.
Despite this unexpected jolt, the players responded positively and went into the deciding match keen to dedicate their performance to the people affected by the quake. Armed with this added motivation, the hosts - 2-1 losers to Chinese Taipei in their opening match - battled back from a goal down to see off Pakistan 3-1 and retain the title.
Team manager Dan Palami said: "We hope this victory can lift the people's spirits". Defender Misagh Bahadoran, meanwhile, announced on Twitter: "We offer this victory to all those affected by the earthquake and [hope] we bring a little smile on the faces of our fellow man.”
Those following the Azkals’ fortunes know only too well how indebted to their German manager Weiss for their sustained development over the past three years.
When the former Rwanda youth coach took up the reins at the start of 2011, the islands nation had spent many years in the lower reaches of the world ladder, with back-to-back losses to Indonesia in the Suzuki Cup taking them as low as 153 at the start of the year.
A new chapter was opened, though, when Weiss got his tenure off to an ideal start. Under his guidance, the Azkals edged Mongolia over two legs in a qualifying play-off for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup. In the consequent qualifying campaign that March, they remained undefeated, with results including a 3-0 win over Bangladesh by ensuring their second appearance in the continental finals. That was followed by another 5-1 aggregate victory over Sri Lanka in July, a triumph which took the Philippines through to Asia’s second qualifying round for the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time.
Initially, there was little progress in the world ranking, with Weiss seeing his first year in charge end with an average placing of 159. However, the Azkals' encouraging showings and spirited results did reignite the passion for football across the country, with even President Benigno S. Aquino III joining the celebrating party after an emphatic 4-0 home win over Sri Lanka.
The team’s hard work began to bear fruit when they soared eight places to 148 the following April as a result of the team's eye-catching performances during the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup. The Azkals kicked off their campaign with victories over former champions India and Tajikistan, and despite losing to Turkmenistan in the semi-finals, they overcame Palestine in a seven-goal thriller to claim third place.
Fresh rewards have been gained over the past year, with the Philippines’ promising run maintained. Weiss's outfit ran riot in March's 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers, thrashing Cambodia 8-0 before downing Turkmenistan 1-0 as they sealed progression and secured another ranking rise to 143.
Having then climbed to 141st position in August, they went on to round off the year in style by moving up eight places over the past two months, courtesy of their performances during the aforementioned Philippines Peace Cup and the friendly in India. With the AFC Challenge Cup kicking off next May in Maldives, the Azkals are aiming to break new ground on the Asian scene and provide more much-needed comfort to their beleaguered nation.