The 13-1 defeat to Indonesia in the 2002 Tiger Cup was perhaps the best thing that could have happened, though a distraught Philippines perhaps did not see it that away, especially after seeing their side respectively lose 6-1 and 4-1 to Myanmar and Vietnam earlier in the competition.

Having reached their lowest point, the Azkals decided something had to be done, with the Philippine Football Association (PFF) immediately launching the Azkal Programme, the aim of which was to prevent such painful defeats from ever happening again. The plan seems to have worked.

Thirteen years on, Philippines have put those dark days behind them and are enjoying one of the most productive periods in their history, giving as good as they get against some of Asia’s leading sides in the preliminaries for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

The benefits of long-term planning
Ambitious and well thought-out, the Azkal Programme has yielded excellent results since its inception, triggering a dramatic transformation in the national team’s fortunes. Explaining the keys to that turnaround in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com were former Philippine coach Jose Ariston Caslib, one of the programme’s architects, and Phil Younghusband, its first “product” and the current team captain.

“The project’s original objectives were very clear,” explained Caslib. “We wanted to end the national team’s run of eight years without a win. And we wanted to do it with a new generation of players who could underpin the development of the national team for the next ten years. We also wanted to give these players the level of competition they needed to mature as footballers.”

The country’s football chiefs got down to work, dipping into a pool of talent that had previously been overlooked: the diaspora of Filipinos who emigrated to Europe in the 1970s and 80s, and more specifically their children, who maintained strong ties with the land of their parents despite being born on the Old Continent.

The search was sure to turn up some gems, and so it proved, with the first two discoveries being Chelsea academy members James and Phil Younghusband, respectively aged 17 and 18 at the time and born to an English father and Filipino mother.

The scorer of 42 goals in 70 subsequent appearances for the Azkals and the current team captain, Phil looked back on the early years of his international career: “To be honest, we didn’t know much about football in the Philippines. We went back there every year, though, and we had an interesting mix of cultures at home, from language through to food. So when the call came in from the Philippine FA we didn’t have any hesitation in choosing to play for them. We were very honoured they’d picked us out.”

On the way up
It was then that the results started to come, if a little slowly at first. Philippines got back to winning ways with a 2-1 win over Timor-Leste in 2004 and recorded another victory over the same opposition two years later, when they also defeated Cambodia and Brunei.

The search for overseas-based talent began to pay off, with more and more players with Filipino roots coming into the fold, raising the standard of the team. The new-look Azkal line-up enjoyed its first major success in 2011, a 4-0 defeat of Sri Lanka in the first round of the qualifiers for Brazil 2014, a notable result that triggered another upturn in Filipino fortunes.

“The results we started to get meant that in the five years after 2010 people began taking more of an interest in the team and the players, many of whom became idols,” explained a proud Caslib. “TV audiences increased, as did profits, which helped us create a much more professional infrastructure, even at youth level and in the women’s game.”

While their recent upturn has raised eyebrows outside Philippines, for the fans and those connected to the national set-up it has been no surprise to see the team excel in the second phase of the Asian qualifying competition for Russia 2018, where they lie third in Group H behind Korea DPR and Uzbekistan, and ahead of Bahrain and Yemen.

“If someone had told me five years ago what we’d be playing for now, I wouldn’t have believed them,” said Younghusband. “We’re an ambitious side now, though. We’ve got talent, we’ve worked hard and there’s a great atmosphere in the dressing room. We all come from different cultural backgrounds but we’ve all got Filipino blood.”

Not surprisingly, expectations are high ahead of the side’s next two games, at home to Yemen and away to second-placed Uzbekistan, matches that the Azkals need to win if they are to stay in with a chance of making Russia 2018.

“It won’t be easy,” said the skipper, who is nevertheless confident that Philippines are on the right track. “We believe we can get the right results, though we know we need to keep on improving, especially in the mental side of things. There’s nothing that can’t be done in football, though, and we’re full of confidence. We won’t let the country down.”