Ambitious Azkals target regional glory
© AFP

Philippines' ongoing growth has culminated in a new all-time high on the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, with the south-east Asian nation this month climbing four places to 143.

Their most recent ascendancy can be attributed to some solid showings in recent friendlies, including outmuscling Chinese Taipei 3-1 and holding one of the continent’s stronger nations, Bahrain, to a goalless draw.

The Azkals' move may appear moderate compared to the likes of Myanmar, who became the continent's best movers over the past month in soaring 28 places to 156. There were also strong showings by Timor-Leste, who catapulted to 187 (joint) with a 19-place rise, while Brunei Darussalam and Laos each rocketed 16 places to 187 (joint) and 177 respectively.

Still, the Philippines' achievement is further recognition of their consistent development under coach Michael Weiss. Since the German took the reins in January 2011, the Philippines have enjoyed a string of impressive results, giving the nation’s burgeoning fan base cause for optimism ahead of this month’s AFF Suzuki Cup.

Ground-breaking feats
Weiss' promising journey in charge of Azkals began with their successful qualification for last March's AFC Challenge Cup. In the process they edged out Mongolia over two legs in the qualifying play-off, before finishing ahead of Bangladesh and Myanmar to seal their maiden appearance in Asia's second-tier competition.

Inspired by the feat, Weiss' charges went on to take the continental finals by storm, sweeping past the likes of Tajikistan and defending champions India to book an unlikely place in the last four. Despite losing to Turkmenistan 2-1, they overcame Palestine in a 4-3 thriller to secure bronze.

A host of talented stars were unearthed as the country exploded on the Asian scene. Spanish-based defender Juan Luis Guirado shores up the back-line, while Emelio Caligdong has excelled in his captaincy and creative role.

Catching the majority of attention, however, are a pair of English-born brothers sharing the name of Younghusband. With James providing drive from midfield, it was the younger Phil that stole the show through his prolific form by finishing the tournament's top-scorer with six goals.

Regional ambitions
Boosted by their plucky AFC Challenge Cup showings, it is little surprise that Weiss' men have fixed their sights on regional conquest heading into next month's ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship, currently known as the Suzuki Cup, and previously known as the Tiger Cup.

In the tournament's last edition in 2010, an enigmatic Philippines came from nowhere to progress into the last four, where they narrowly lost out to Indonesia with veteran Cristian Gonzales scoring the only goal in each leg.

The team’s prospects heading into the Suzuki Cup are very different from two years ago, and they are considered by many as a genuine force this time around, a fact which provided team manager Dan Palami with cause for optimism.

We have to live up to the expectations not only of the Filipino fans but the other teams. We must stand by our ranking.
Philippines team manager Dan Palami

"In 2010 we surprised everyone," he said. "Now they don’t consider us as underdogs and every team is expecting to have a hard time against us. And we have to live up to the expectations not only of the Filipino fans but the other teams. We must stand by our ranking."

And his confidence is not unfounded, considering the team's smooth build-up to the campaign. The south-east Asians had gone eight matches unbeaten over five months from May to October, including lifting the inaugural Philippines Peace Cup with an unblemished record.

As a result, the Azkals, unusually, enter the regional competition as the second top-ranked side behind group contenders Vietnam. However, experienced Weiss warned his players against complacency in a group which also features co-hosts Thailand and Myanmar.

"The important thing is not your [FIFA] ranking but how you perform on the pitch," said Palami. "It is how we prepare for the games and build up the team’s confidence. The tournament will be highly competitive and no opponents should be underestimated."