Dooley maintaining momentum for emergent Philippines
© AFP

Though their achievements may be modest in global terms, the Philippines have enjoyed undoubted exponential growth over recent years. In 2006, just two FIFA World Cup™ cycles ago, Philippines were at their lowest ebb ranked 195 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and with just a handful of nations trailing. Under the guidance of the globe-trotting German Michael Weiss, Philippines began their renaissance with the momentum building even further this year under the tutelage of former USA skipper Thomas Dooley.

Dooley, one of the Stars and Stripes’ most decorated players featured prominently during USA’s breakthrough FIFA World Cup on home soil in 1994, and then captained his nation at France 1998, including an iconic match against Iran. Now aged 52, Dooley is creating a new chapter in his career after assuming the reins of the Azkals in February.

In that short space of time the Philippines have fallen narrowly short of a maiden AFC Challenge Cup crown, while a succession of positive results have left the side as the highest ranked south-east Asian nation ahead of November’s AFF Suzuki Cup. It is an unfamiliar position to be in for the Azkals, who for many years have watched on while the likes of Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia claimed regional bragging rights at the biennial tournament.

New style, new ambitions
Now the Philippines, who have won just a handful of matches across the ten tournaments held to date, head into the Singapore/Vietnam hosted event ostensibly as front-runners. In many ways it is confirmation of the Azkals hasty ascension in the international pecking order.

Dooley now aims to take the team even further based on a modern brand of possession-based football. “We have changed the way we play, we want to keep possession,” Dooley told FIFA.com. “I told the players that we need to play and keep the ball. I want to ‘play football’, not ‘chase football’. The response that I’m getting from the fans and the media is that there is a big change [this year]. I think we are definitely going in the right direction.”

The Philippines are set for another fresh milestone in two years when they host the regional tournament for the first time, alongside co-hosts Myanmar. And, partly due to the national team’s enhanced status, Dooley is in no doubt that football will at some stage usurp basketball as the nation’s preferred sport. “It might take a while but I’m pretty sure we will change that,” Dooley says of changing the status quo.

“If we can get people looking up to football, I think that will help the change. [Suzuki Cup success] is very important. And if, for example, we were to win the Suzuki Cup we would go on a promotion tour and let everyone know that the only chance they have is with football. Basketball you need to be at least 6ft 2ins, and in the Philippines that is not going to happen. So the kids are getting into football, which is not about the size, it is about skill.”

Dooley’s Azkals have a thorough schedule lined up ahead of the south-east Asian championship. They host a four-nation tournament over the coming weeks against Chinese Taipei, Myanmar and Palestine. Later this year they will tour north America where they hope to raise funds “and hope” following last November’s devastating typhoon Haiyan. “We are trying to do as much as we can to help,” Dooley said.

Part of history
Dooley achieved much in his playing career including a long period of success in the German Bundesliga, and on the international stage. “The 94 World Cup was a big success for us [USA],” says Dooley when asked of his career highlights. “Then 98 was a great experience for me [as captain]. It was a beautiful time for me to see how football developed in the US during my eight years with the national team, and it was great to be a part of.”

For many, Dooley will be remembered as skipper of USA when they faced Iran at France 98 in a match, which did much to break down perceived cultural and ideological barriers. The match proved to be a classic and the photo of Dooley shaking hands with Iran captain Ahmed Abedzadeh remains an iconic image.

Even now Dooley remains in contact with several Iranians, including Abedzadeh and long-serving Team Melli defender Mohammad Khakpour. “We still talk about that [match],” says Dooley of a contest packed with goalmouth drama. “If it was only for the bettering of the relationship between the two countries then I would l love to lose, but obviously I would love to have won that game.”