Philippines making Asian waves

Asia's third round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ may have dominated June's headlines across the continent, with teams struggling to enter the ten-team line-up for the final stage. However, it was the Philippines who stole the show in this month's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, as they rocketed up 19 places to 170. They are Asia's best movers for June.

Although it is still some distance from their highest-ever ranking of 157 in December 1992, this recent leap has underlined the progress they have made over the past few years.

The South-East Asians' giant stride up the global order is largely attributable to their impressive campaign in last month's qualifiers for this year's AFC Challenge Cup, where they stayed undefeated to finish level on points with reigning champions Tajikistan, although the Tajiks advanced to the main tournament thanks to a superior goal difference.

Regional focus
Football has long been the number one sport in many parts of Asia, but it is a different story in the Philippines, where basketball enjoys the lion's share of the attention. To rejuvenate the beautiful game in the country, the Philippine Football Association undertook a long-term development scheme, choosing not to participate in the qualifying campaign for the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups, focusing instead on domestic and regional competitions.

Their rebuilding process culminated in May when the team, under former international Norman Fegidero, came within a whisker of booking their place at the AFC Challenge Cup, a competition tailor-made for the continent's second-tier teams.

The Philippines opened their qualifying campaign brightly with a 1-0 win over Brunei on 13 May, captain Emelio Caligdong sliding home the only goal after 29 minutes. In the crunch tie against Tajikistan two days later, Fegidero's charges did well to keep the holders at bay for a goalless draw, despite playing the majority of the game with only ten men. They finished with a 3-0 thrashing of Bhutan, a result which sent them to the top of the group on seven points alongside Tajikistan, who only claimed the group's qualifying spot thanks to their superior scoring tally.

Missing out on the continental tournament like this, understandably, was a major disappointment for coach Fegidero. "Our players played very well throughout, but we just got unlucky," he lamented. "To crash out on goal difference is very hard and frustrating for us."

Glorious past
Despite their elimination, the Philippines' excellent display during the qualifiers augurs well for the country, who can further take inspiration from their glorious past.

One of the founding members of the Asian Football Confederation, the Philippines were among the game's frontrunners on the continent, with their national association (PFF) founded in 1907, before they became affiliated to FIFA in 1930. In those heady days, the Philippines were one of the region's powerhouses; a 2-1 victory over China in the Far Eastern Championship was one particular feather in their footballing cap.

They also produced some of Asia's best players during that period. The most noteworthy of these was Paulino Alcantara, who scored an incredible 357 goals for Spanish giants Barcelona between 1912 and 1927.

They have made little impression on the international stage since then, their semi-final appearance in the 1991 Southeast Asian Games being their only significant achievement. However, with the PFF reorganized in 1982 and an ambitious grassroots program launched in 1998, aided by FIFA and the German government, the foundation has been laid for plenty of improvement in the years to come.