The Philippines made football history have made football history after qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time ever.
Phil Younghusband sealed the 2-1 victory against Tajikistan with a penalty kick at the 90th minute — his 50th goal in international competition.
With the win, the Azkals — the team’s nickname, which means ‘street dog’ — finished at the top of Group F with 12 points. This has won them a place in next year’s tournament to be held in the United Arab Emirates.
The win today (Tuesday, March 27) came after a nail-biting match, which saw Tajikistan take the lead with a penalty goal in the 66th minute. However, the Azkals equalised within ten minutes before the last-minute winning goal.
The win at at Makati’s dilapidated Rizal Memorial Football Stadium is perhaps the biggest step forward in Philippine football history, a culmination of eight years of hard work, after the Azkals first captured the imagination of the nation with a surprising semifinals run in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup.
Speaking before the match, head coach Thomas Dooley said: “Obviously it’s a very important game for us.” Dooley is a former player for team USA and is now in his fifth year with the Azkals.
“We never expected it would come back to the last day. I hoped we could have closed it down a little bit earlier, but that happens sometimes.
“We have a home game and we cannot afford to lose, so we have to get a point or a win and then we qualify.
“I’m trying to get the pressure away from the players and I’m just trying to get them focused on writing history for the Philippines.”
Qualification for the finals is sure to give soccer a big boost in a country where the sporting landscape is dominated by basketball.
However, the ‘beautiful game’ has a long history in the Philippines. The country played in the first international fixture on Asian soil when they beat China in 1913.
In another claim to footballing fame, former Philippine international Paulinho Alcantara was Barcelona’s all-time leading goalscorer until Lionel Messi surpassed his tally four years ago.
Manila was also the birthplace of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954 but, despite those deep connections, the Philippines has a limited track record of success.
Dooley is confident securing a place at the finals will be a springboard to even greater achievements.
“That could be the spark and it will spread in all directions. The potential is there, we just need to have the plan,” he said.
He also said that expatriate Filipino football players may now be inspired to play for the Philippines, rather than their adoptive countries.