Arguably the most exciting thing that happened during the Philippine Azkals’ final three fixtures in the joint 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifying matches in Sharjah, UAE, was coach Scott Cooper relying on the younger players in his lineup and giving them the taste of international football at the senior level.
The likes of Jefferson Tabinas, Oliver Bias, and Jarvey Gayoso stepped up to fill the absences of the likes of veterans Iain Ramsey and Alvaro Silva. One of their peers, Mark Winhoffer, clocked in an accumulated 89 minutes against China, Guam, and Maldives amidst the onset of grief brought about by a personal issue just before he suited up for the national team.
“It’s been quite emotional, My grandmother just passed away probably three, four days before I got called up so all this time away,” said Winhoffer of his lola Elsa Almeda who hailed from Davao.
“It’s all been about representing her and where she came from and trying to do her proud and trying to make my mom proud and also my dad and my brothers, who’ve gone through the same track of soccer. They’ve helped me develop a lot as a person and as a soccer player and I just try to do them as proud as I can.
“She basically raised me and my brothers and my sister because our mom and dad were working a lot so she lived with us in the States. She took us all to soccer games every time I went out. It’s just my little memory of her,” he reflected.
Winhoffer, who played locally for International School of Manila, for Yale University in the NCAA Division I in America, and various youth national teams, understands the difficulty of playing for the Philippines at the senior level.
While he has his own ambitions, he respects the fact that he is only starting his journey as an Azkal and accepts any role in the team, although his more senior comrades have helped him adjust to his new surroundings.
“They’ve definitely helped me acclimate to the team.
“It’s definitely very hard to come to a new team, especially a senior national team and expect to fit in right away but the guys emphasized how important the national team is to them and it rubs off on the younger guys. They try to assimilate you into the culture that they have and the culture that we have is a winning culture,” said the 22-year-old.
Perhaps the standout moment of Winhoffer’s personal campaign came at the 60th minute of the Philippines’ match against Guam. Brought on as a substitute for Mike Ott, the central midfielder thought he headed the ball home, only for it to get a deflection from Guam’s Marcus Lopez who got credited for the own goal.
While an inquest occurred post-game because the Azkals’ level dropped off, the 6-foot-0 player received special praise from Cooper alongside Tabinas during the press conference.
“I mean it’s for that game so great I did well that game but you’re only as good as your last game so hopefully there’s the next opportunity. When I get on to the pitch, I show well again. I don’t really rest on my laurels. I just keep going forward and trying to make a new impression every day,” he said.
Now, with international football experience at the senior level, Winhoffer hopes to pass on what he’s learned so far from his mentor and senior teammates down the line. Potentially, he will be one of the more experienced players for the under-23 team in the 2021 SEA Games, if it pushes through, and he is relishing that role.
“Meeting coach Cooper for the first time definitely helps because I know where his head’s at. He definitely wants to win trophies and I know that coming in having first-team experience. I can help bring the other guys who haven’t had first-team experience into the culture so I can help out, help us win some games and some trophies.”