Weiss: Philippines fans take my breath away
When Michael Weiss enters a room, he is immediately the centre of attention. And it is not just because the 47-year-old German coach a big man with a deep voice. Simply put, Weiss is a commanding and self-confident figure who leads from the front and inspires his followers.
This is especially true in his current role in charge of the Philippines, where seemingly he can do no wrong. Indeed, under his guidance, the Azkals have been scaling hitherto unknown heights.
His operating base is Manila, but news of the latest upswing in the national team's fortunes under his stewardship has spread way beyond the city limits of the sprawling metropolis. The Azkals, which loosely translates as ‘street dogs’ and is the team’s affectionate nickname, have been making headlines around the world after claiming a stunning third place at the AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal.
“Winning bronze was the greatest success in the history of the association. The players have made themselves immortal," Weiss told FIFA.com, his voice ringing with passion and pride. “Before the tournament, no-one really took us that seriously, but now we sense plenty of respect. The time has come to aim for the next step, and strive for the levels of the teams in the Middle East, the challengers to the really big names in our region. Later on, we can even aim to match Japan, Australia and South Korea."
Weiss has a vision, and he is determined to realise it. An expert in the Far East and Africa, he gained experience in Japan, China PR and Rwanda before taking the Philippines' reins in early 2011. When he took over, football was a discipline many locals were indifferent about. Basketball was the best-loved sport, but based on their recent success, the Azkals have prompted ecstatic scenes around the nation of 92 million in south-east Asia.
“When we play in Manila, the stadiums are totally sold out nowadays. The fans are a riot of colour and adore my lads as if they were pop stars. The passion takes your breath away. I get goose bumps every time," said the man with a degree in sports science.
There is no mistaking the sparkle in his eyes when he speaks of what has happened in Philippine football over recent months. “We scout around the world, and we're working step-by-step on improving tactically and developing a winning mentality. We're noticing increasing respect and admiration. Our opponents for friendlies are stronger now, and that's exactly the way it has to continue."
The former goalkeeper, a member of the German FA (DFB) overseas coaching project, feels totally at home in Asia. His wife is Japanese, and he himself is completely open to new influences:
“To work in this region, you need good social skills," he explained. "It's very important to accept the prevailing mentality. There's no point coming out here and taking a rigid German approach, trying to restructure everything all at once."
This attitude must be one of the keys to his success, although Teutonic virtues are not completely forgotten: “But obviously part of the job is getting the players to accept that success only comes through hard work and a certain level of discipline."
Weiss has clearly mastered this aspect of the job. Around 20 of his current squad play for Philippine clubs, and these are the coach’s main focus. On top of that, the group has in recent times been strengthened with professionals from Europe and America, who may have grown up overseas but boast Philippine roots: “Before our big matches, we have players coming in from England, Spain and Germany. Ahead of the key games, one of the challenges for me is to prepare my regular squad to a level which allows us to train efficiently when the overseas-based players arrive.”
The current star of the Philippines is Stephan Schrock. The 25-year-old helped Greuther Furth gain promotion to the German Bundesliga this season, but he would have been playing in the top flight next term anyway as he is set to join Hoffenheim this summer. The player gladly undertakes the long trip to join up with the other Azkals.
Weiss said: “If we have Schrock and Manuel Ott from the (German second division) Ingolstadt reserves, or Jerry Lucena from Denmark as twin holding midfielders, we're capable of giving the second-tier teams from Asia a tough time on a good day."
However, Weiss is acutely aware that it hardly makes sense to fill out his entire team with starlets from abroad. “This isn't about short-term success, it's about the long-term development of the team and earning football a place in the hearts of the Philippine people," he insisted.
Two vital figures in this mission are James and Phil Younghusband, brothers who are both products of the Chelsea youth system but long ago returned to Manila where they play for a local club. “As you'd expect, they’re exceptionally important players who people really identify with,” Weiss said.
It was Schrock who recently brought the Philippines to within an ace of an even bigger shock result. In the second round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Weiss and his men lost 3-0 away to Kuwait, but crowd hero ‘Schrocky’ blasted his side into the lead with a long-range blockbuster shortly before half-time in the return, turning the Manila stadium into a cauldron of noise and colour.
“We ended up losing 2-1 and we were very disappointed," recalled Weiss. "But as I told my lads: don't let your heads go down, that was just the start."
Weiss is more than conscious of the need to continue managing expectations in the Philippines: “I think there's a danger that folk want too much, too soon. The first taste of success is sweet, but let no-one forget that we still have to take it step-by-step." He is insistent on a gradual approach, and one or two players who were unwilling to accept this philosophy are no longer members of the squad.
“I count myself exceptionally lucky, and I'm always delighted to be working together with people such as association president Mariano Araneta and team manager Dan Palami. They know that small steps are the right way forward, and they've always given me full support, even when I take difficult decisions," said Weiss. “If we can continue on this path, in partnership with the DFB's overseas coaching project, we could go a long way in the future."
But what does that mean in concrete terms? “It's too early to talk about qualifying for the World Cup. But when it comes to qualifying for the 2018 tournament, I'm convinced we can go further than the second round," said the coach. “But our big target is winning the AFC Challenge Cup in 2014, because then we'd qualify for the AFC Asia Cup in Australia the following year. That's realistic, and it would mean we'd be exactly where we want to be."
Membership of the continental elite suddenly appears an achievable dream.