When the Philippine Azkals touches down in Doha, Qatar for its training camp from May 18-31, there shall be 26 players who will fight to be included in the final pool of 23 members for the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in China next month.
It is always tricky for the Philippines to come up with a lineup for international football matches because its players compete in different leagues around Asia and Europe. Things are more complicated now, though, due to the current effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During this time, it’s even more difficult because ultimately we’ll be asking players to come outside of the FIFA calendar, which poses its own problems and there lies effective communication required between the national team and clubs,” explained coach Scott Cooper during a virtual press conference organized by the Philippine Football Federation.
“We have fortunately fostered good relationships with some of the clubs. Some of their managers have allowed some players to leave earlier than the FIFA international dates,” explained long-time Azkals team manager Dan Palami.
“Some of the key players we have, have their last games on the 23rd so they will leave as soon as they finish their games.”
One of the players who look to return to the fold is current Birmingham City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge with his club set to end its campaign on May 8, against Blackburn Rovers. Another veteran on Cooper’s radar is United City talisman Stephan Schrock.
“Schrock and Etheridge are the core of this team in terms of their commitment and the things they do to talk to the players,” explained the 50-year-old mentor.
“Neil is wanting to come. He’s just getting his passport renewed at this moment.”
Perhaps the most intriguing addition, though, would be Bienvenido Maranon who is still in the process of formally becoming a Filipino citizen. The United City forward has proven himself as a top player in Asia and someone of his quality would be a welcome addition to the Azkals’ camp if circumstances allow.
“We are still following up information on whether the (naturalization) bill has been signed by the president already which should start the process,” shared PFF General Secretary Atty. Ed Gastanes. “There is still time and it will depend on the coaching staff on how Maranon can go to Qatar in the next two weeks.
“Tall order but still doable because he has to secure a Philippine passport and we have to register him at AFC and convince FIFA there’s a provision in FIFA regulations about things of this nature and we are prepared to do that and justify it and normally FIFA answers very quickly also. In the past four or five weeks, we have received several approvals already from FIFA on some new players.”
In terms of paperwork, defender Michael Kempter is as good as done as mentioned by Cooper. On the other hand, Gerrit Holtmann and Raphael Obermair are still working on theirs urgently to beat the deadline.
“Our embassies abroad are very cooperative and accommodating in terms of dealing with the applications of our players for passports,” said Palami, who later noted that Obermair should be accomplishing his part today while certain restrictions may hamper the passport application of Holtmann due to the Bundesliga’s COVID-19 bubble.
Another source of players to beef up the pool could come from the Azkals Development Team that competed in the 2020 Philippines Football League season. However, nothing is set in stone especially since these are qualifiers to be played and not just friendly matches.
“A lot of those players have a lot of development to do,” said Cooper. “They had a good PFL run, didn’t they? It was nice to see young players doing quite well in the PFL. But I mean if you look in the first two games the ADT lost, they showed why they need to be developed.
“There are two or three Azkals Development Team that is being considered in the long list for this squad… Of course, it would be a gamble but there are one or two who are worth looking at and you’ll see that when you see the long list that is coming out.”