Two national teams, the Filipinas of Women’s Football and Gilas Pilipinas of Men’s Basketball, were in the spotlight this past week.
Both teams will be playing in the World Cup of their respective sports event in 2023. The similarity, though, ends there.
Gilas Men are automatically seeded to the World Cup by virtue of the Philippines being the host of the competition.
The Filipinas made history many times over. They became the first team from the Philippines to qualify for the biggest stage in football. In May, they earned a bronze medal in the Vietnam Southeast Asian Games.
Then just this Sunday, they became the first national football team to emerge champion of a major competition by winning the AFF Women’s Championship.
Gilas Men, on the other hand, went 1-1 in the February window of the FIBA Asia World Cup qualifiers after absorbing a 25-point shellacking on home soil from the New Zealand Tall Blacks.
Then the unimaginable happened when the team settled for a silver in the Vietnam SEA Games, the first time in 34 years that the country did not win gold in the biennial meet. In this week’s FIBA Asia Cup, Gilas wound up with just a single win in four games to miss the quarterfinals.
While the Filipinas have been on an upward trajectory, the Gilas Men’s squad has been on a downward spiral.
Looking deeper into the divergent results will reveal a vast gulf between the two teams in terms of mindset, system, and attitude that have been laid out and molded by the men at the helm of the squads.
After his team was defeated by Vietnam and Thailand in the SEA Games, Stajcic acknowledged that the Filipinas were still getting used to playing at a high level that their regional rivals were already accustomed to.
The Filipinas started the year at 64th in the FIFA rankings, a minnow in the football world.
While the emphasis has been to grow individually and as a team by playing as many matches together, there was always the attempt and the desire to win games as they went along.
It showed in their training camp last June where the Filipinas lost a close match, 0-1, to world number 27 Ireland and won twice over world number 63 Bosnia and Herzegovina, first via 3-0 drubbing and then coming from behind to snatch a 2-1 victory. These games were the first that a Philippine team went up against Europeans, but the Filipinas showed neither fear nor hesitation in the face of bigger, more experienced opponents.
Stajcic has also shown that he is not afraid to throw his young players into the fire to test their mettle. In the crucial quarterfinal match against Chinese Taipei in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, then 19-year-old Carleigh Frilles was part of Stajcic’s closing unit. In the AFF Women’s Championship semifinals against Vietnam, 17-year-old Bella Flanigan was part of the starting 11. In the finals versus Thailand, 18-year-old Malea Cesar was the first to sub in.
Hoisting the trophy in the AFF Women’s Championship will always be considered a glorious moment in Philippine football. But what should not be overlooked are the building blocks that took them to the title. The Filipinas won over three teams that are ranked higher than them and that have already beaten them this year. That some key players from these opponents were not present does not take away the fact that the Philippine squad has been improving tremendously.
This is how a team should be performing in the course of its preparations for the World Cup. You beat teams that you are supposed to beat. You outdo yourselves by beating teams you have not beaten previously.
Such is not the case with Gilas Men.
Gilas Men will need to relearn how to beat Japan, a team it lost to for the first time in 12 years. Losing by 17 points by New Zealand this July after the 25-point blowout last February can hardly be considered an improvement. The only real accomplishment of Gilas Men since Reyes took over as coach is that it has defeated India three times this year.
Going into the FIBA Asia Cup, Reyes talked about setting modest expectations of placing in the top eight. Incredulous, really, as it sent a message to the players that the team was targeting a goal that was way below its standing. After all, the Philippines is the sixth highest ranked Asian team.
Reyes has sounded off that these games are intended to give players the much-needed experience, yet he stuck to a 7-man rotation in the SEA Games match-up against Indonesia. How will someone like a Francis Lopez gain experience if he sits out in big games or is not given significant minutes? Will it even matter next year since signs are pointing to the formation of a Gilas squad composed mostly of PBA players, Lopez might well be out of the Gilas lineup by then.
At this point, Reyes has seemingly lost all credibility in the eyes of the basketball community due to the results he has had over the past six months. His oft-repeated statements about learning, about missing key personnel, and about limited preparation time do not mask that the team should be close to peaking with just 11 months before the World Cup.
While Stajcic has already talked about climbing mountains and targeting the Asian football superpowers like Japan, China, Australia, and South Korea, Reyes still has to figure out how to beat Thailand convincingly.
It is the small, incremental steps that drive excellence and winning, done consistently, that ultimately make for a world-caliber squad, not the empty rhetoric, the stale cries of “Puso”, and the default, almost instinctive excuses.
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While there is no question that at this stage, both the Filipinas and Gilas Men already have their sights set on the 2023 World Cup, the manner by which both teams are being prepared speaks volumes of the way these squads are being handled.
One team is gaining experience and responding to the tutelage of a coach who is masterfully transforming these learnings into a culture of success and excellence.
The other is still figuring out its identity as a team as it is left at the mercy of a coach who seems just too happy to wait for Jordan Clarkson.