The year 2023 will always be remembered in Philippine sports as the year the country competed in two separate world cups – the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023.
The Filipinas sought to upset the odds in the Australia and New Zealand tournament behind the tutelage of Alen Stajcic and the goalscoring prowess of Sarina Bolden.
Likewise, the Gilas Pilipinas Men – led by NBA star Jordan Clarkson – targeted a deep run on home soil as the Philippines co-hosted the competition with Japan and Indonesia.
Both teams would end up clinching one memorable win each in their respective campaigns. However, one would arguably bring more pride to the country while the other was beset with controversy brought about by the intense scrutiny amidst the pile-up of losses.
Filipinas Rise to the Occasion
The Philippines entered the group stage of the FIFA WWC on the back of an extensive fixture list. Stajcic’s team competed against Wales, Iceland, and Scotland in the 2023 Pinatar Cup; Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Hong Kong in round one of the AFC 2024 Olympic Qualifiers; and Myanmar, Malaysia, and Vietnam in the 2023 Southeast Asian Games.
The Filipinas first congregated in Sydney for a training camp one month before their first game in the tournament. They then ramped up their preparations by holding closed-door friendlies — most notably against four-time world champions the United States as well as perennial favorites Sweden.
Stajcic’s side started its Group A campaign against Switzerland in Dunedin last July 21. Katrina Guillou thought she gave the country a dream start, only for her goal to be ruled out due to offside after a VAR check. The Swiss eventually prevailed 2-0 but it was a respectable debut on the world stage for the Philippines.
And then came the result that brought football into the mainstream consciousness of the Filipino people and shocked the world.
Needing a win to restore its dreams of entering the knockouts, the Philippines stunned host nation New Zealand 1-0 last July 25 in Wellington. Sarina Bolden, the country’s record goalscorer, headed the ball home in the 24th minute while the Filipinas’ discipline and heroic defending as well as goalkeeper Olivia McDaniel’s crucial endgame saves sealed the historic victory.
The Filipinas’ win over the Football Ferns provided hope that the former could score a major upset against 1995 winners Norway to enter the round of 16. However, it just was not meant to be as the Norwegians, who were beset with internal issues, sealed a ticket to the knockouts with a 6-0 drubbing last July 30.
There remained a festive feeling after the match despite the six-goal defeat that ended the Philippines’ FIFA WWC campaign. Filipino fans went to the Filipinas’ hotel in Auckland to meet and congratulate their heroes.
The whole journey was proof that dreams can indeed come true in this world as long as the right people, program, and support are in place to see them through.
Gilas Falter on Home Soil
If the Filipinas were celebrated in an almost universal fashion, then the same could not be said about their counterparts from Gilas Pilipinas. Not even the arrival of Clarkson — the 2020-21 NBA Sixth Man of Year — could turn the tide of what became a disappointing campaign for the nationals.
The Philippines, which hosted FIBA Basketball World Cup matches for the first time since the tournament’s 1978 edition, eventually only won once in five games across the group stage and classification phase.
The hosts started their bid to advance out of Group A with an 87-81 loss to Karl-Anthony Towns’ Dominican Republic in front of a tournament record audience of 38,115 at the Philippine Arena last August 25.
The Filipinos did not fare better in their next two games. Up against Angola, the weakest team in Group A on paper, the Philippines ended up folding 80-70 last August 27.
Gilas then succumbed 83-90 to Gianmarco Pozzecco’s Italy on August 29 as its hopes of qualifying for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris as the best Asian team was hanging by a thread.
After finishing bottom in Group A, Gilas was relegated to Group M of the classification phase. It suffered its fourth straight defeat of its campaign, an 87-68 drubbing at the hands of South Sudan, on August 31 which ended any Olympic hopes.
The Philippines’ biggest moment came in its last game against China. Clarkson stole the show with 34 points behind five triples to lead Gilas to a 96-75 over the Chinese in front of 11,080 people at the SMART Araneta Coliseum. It marked the first time the Philippines won on the world stage since its 81-79 overtime victory over Senegal in the 2014 edition of the tourney.
Amidst all of the team’s struggles in its campaign, the Filipino public’s anger was mostly directed towards head coach Chot Reyes. Reyes, who is no stranger to controversy, arguably became the biggest talking point of the country’s campaign.
From his “Italy is Italy” comment before the tournament that was deemed defeatist by a lot of people on social media to his wearing of pricey Thom Browne suits, the nine-time PBA champion mentor was scapegoated for the team’s failure to make it out of the group stage.
One of the lasting memories from this World Cup was how Reyes was booed heavily every time his name was announced before the game. The 59-year-old mentor ended his personal involvement in the competition with a fiery press conference where he attacked his detractors after stepping down and refusing to say the word “resign.”
It was a dismal way for the country’s World Cup campaign on home soil to end. Rather than inspire a nation, Gilas exposed how a lack of unity from stakeholders to a fanbase could throw things in disarray.
The Filipinas and Gilas entered new chapters following their respective World Cup campaigns as Stajcic and Reyes moved on after both squads were eliminated.
Mark Torcaso, another Australian coach, led the Filipinas to the quarterfinals of the 19th Asian Games in China as well as wins against Iran and Chinese Taipei in the second round of the 2024 AFC Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Perth, Australia.
On the other hand, Gilas ended a 61-year gold medal drought in the 19th Asian Games under legendary coach Tim Cone’s mentorship.
The two-time PBA Grand Slam champion mentor and Justin Brownlee’s heroics steered the nationals to dramatic wins against China and Jordan in their last two games to bring home the championship.
Unfortunately for Gilas, there was a slight complication soon after as it was discovered that Brownlee tested positive for marijuana. Nevertheless, the Philippines kept the gold medal despite the speculation of the consequences.
For the Filipinas, there may be the AFF Women’s Championship and multiple friendly matches to look forward to in 2024.
As for Gilas, it is set to compete in qualification matches for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris but the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas has yet to announce who will be in charge as head coach and who will be the players involved.