Fresh-faced Philippines hoping for dream Asian Cup return
Philippines set for first Asian Women’s Cup in 15 years
New coach Rabah Benlarbi hoping to make history
Malditas out to reach first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup
While the AFC Women’s Asian Cup’s headline acts – Australia, Japan and China PR – may draw the attention in Jordan, a returning face is hoping to produce a scene-stealing cameo.
It is 15 years since the Philippines were last on the continental stage, having been regulars for a decade. Now they are back, they are eager not to waste their chance in the spotlight, particularly with five tickets to the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ for the eight sides to fight over.
However, this won’t be the same team that booked their place at the finals a year ago. New coach Rabah Benlarbi only took the reins three weeks before kick-off, while just six players from qualifying are heading to Jordan. Benlarbi frankly described assembling the side as “commando preparation”.
But, this does not mean that he or his side are arriving low on confidence or short of expectations. In a career that has seen him criss-cross the globe, with years as a fitness coach with the likes of Juventus and United Arab Emirates' national side before he became assistant coach of the Chinese women’s national team and then head coach of Myanmar’s U-18 side, Benlarbi has learned a few things.
“This is a young and very motivated team with some talented players and a winning mentality,” he explained to FIFA.com. While his desire is to build a team based around speed and aggression through short, quick passing – with an admiration for the Pep Guardiola ethos – little time to prepare has meant this is a longer-term goal.
“We have focused our preparations on controlling the game collectively and tactically in a bid to overcome the fact that we haven’t had the same time as other teams. Our squad has given a lot and worked hard, so I hope they will be rewarded.”
The rewards truly would be spectacular for the Malditas, who have never enjoyed the chance to step out at the global finals. They will be carried by a wave of optimism too, following the men’s side success in clinching a first spot at the men’s Asian Cup.
Facing the hosts, alongside Canada 2015 alumni China and Thailand, Benlarbi is under no illusions that a World Cup spot is simply theirs for the taking from Group A. “We have nothing to lose and people may well not take us seriously, which could play to our advantage. The fact that this group is more open than Australia, Korea Republic and Japan’s is also a positive.”
The Philippines in qualifying
4-0 v United Arab Emirates 4-0 v Iraq 8-0 v Tajikistan 1-1 v Bahrain 1-5 v Jordan
With the two third-placed sides contesting a play-off for the fifth ticket to France, a pair of well-timed wins could be enough to book a seat on the plane. And, when it comes to facing China, he has a few aces up his sleeve.
Benlarbi was part of the technical staff that guided the Chinese to the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament quarter-finals at Rio 2016 and is relishing the chance to reunite with his former charges. “I will remember the moments we shared together forever,” he said. “I love them all.
“The Steel Roses are probably one of the tournament favourites, with exceptional players like Wang Shanshan and Wang Shuang, as well as experienced internationals such as Wu Haiyan and Liu Shanshan.”
However, he feels a patchy year means the Philippines could spring a surprise. “Of course I will use my knowledge of the team; I know their strengths and weaknesses. They are less explosive than before and tactically vulnerable when using a 4-2-3-1 system, but they are still the Steel Roses.”
The Philippines' final group game against Thailand may well be the key to their World Cup hopes and some of their side know only too well about how close margins can change lives. A narrow 1-0 defeat to Thailand in 2014’s Asian Cup qualifying was the difference between the two reaching the continental finals.
Thailand would go on to appear at their first World Cup in Canada and create a groundswell of positivity throughout women’s football in the country. Veteran vice-captain Patrice Impelido has said there will be “revenge” in mind when facing them – could that, and the feel-good factor in Filipino football, inspire them to new heights?
The Philippines women's team watching their male counterparts reach their first AFC Asian Cup