Dubai: Football in the Philippines comes in two chapters — before and after Dan Palami. Before the 43-year-old railway magnate became Philippines team manager in 2010, the Azkals, or Street Dogs, had won the Far Eastern Games in 1913, reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Games in 1958 and the semi-finals of the South East Asian Games in 1991.
But since Palami’s appointment — after which he has dipped heavily into his own pocket to kickstart the sport — the Philippines have twice reached the semi-finals of the The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Championships in 2010 and 2012, before finishing third on their AFC Challenge Cup debut in 2012.
Key to Palami’s success has been his ability to spot Filipino talent abroad and persuade European players of Filipino descent to represent the national team. With their success, he hopes interest in the game in the Philippines will continue to flourish, resulting in the development of a better domestic league structure and more homegrown talent.
But in order to achieve these twin aims, success needs to be sustained. And the next task is to win the forthcoming 2014 AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives from May 19-30, in order to qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup for the first time in the nation’s history.
Gulf News spoke to Palami on the sidelines of the Philippines’ recent training camp in Dubai to discuss some key issues.
GULF NEWS: Can you explain your decision to replace head coach Michael Weiss with Thomas Dooley just four months before the AFC Challenge Cup?
DAN PALAMI: We were in a plateau and needed a catalyst and I felt getting a new coach would help. We were happy with what he had done. He brought us to a higher level, but was it the level to bring us the AFC Challenge Cup? I wasn’t sure. It was a risk I had to take and I think so far we are in a better position than we were with Michael. I’m not belittling the advances we had under him, but I think we reached as far as we could go with him.
GN: What brief have you given the new coach?
DP: Basically, give us the AFC Challenge Cup. He has to get us there. We are making sure everything he needs is given so that all he has to do is train the guys and get us to that objective leaving no stones unturned. Winning the Challenge Cup would help us qualify for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in our history. That’s our goal, to be up there with the big guys.
GN: Why did you pick Dooley in particular?
DP: I think his experience as a player in the Fifa World Cup and with Bundesliga clubs will immediately gain him the respect of the players. That’s important for a coach with the limited time he has to establish rapport and the respect he needs to have with the team. We were on the same page with regards what we felt the team was lacking and he came with a plan on what he intends to achieve. That was the clincher. The fact he could speak German, English and Spanish was also a positive as that covers almost all the squad in terms of languages spoken. His experience as a German-American being called up to represent the US at World Cup 1994 is almost the same as our players of mixed heritage, albeit in a less prestigious tournament. Nevertheless, he will understand their position perfectly having experienced similar as a player.
GN: Dooley has overseen two friendly games so far: a goalless draw against Malaysia and a 1-0 defeat to Azerbaijan. Have you been impressed?
DP: The fact that we gave Malaysia and Azerbaijan a really good fight speaks well of the coach, who has almost performed a miracle considering the short time he has had with the squad. He’s had only two training sessions with the overseas players and four with the local-based players. But everyone is now clear of their role, whereas before players were unsure where to go or how to run. That was the reason most of our attacks consisted of long balls, but now we are able to keep the ball on the ground and make deliberate opportunities on goal. It’s a remarkable improvement from how we played before. If we have this kind of style inside six training sessions, imagine what will happen when the team has more time together. In the context of our preparation for the AFC Challenge Cup, this can only augur well for us come May.
GN: How has football grown in the Philippines since you became team manager?
DP: We reached the semi-finals of the Asean Championship for the first time in 2010. That was the turning point. Since then, we have managed to qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup for the first time in 2012, where we reached the semi-finals and finished third. As a result of our success, football has become the fastest-growing sport in the Philippines. Of course, it hasn’t overtaken basketball yet, but we have 65,000 kids playing youth-team football nationwide and retailers have seen a 9,000 per cent increase in football clothing, which is something we didn’t have before.
GN: Sixteen of the current 22-man squad were born overseas. When can we see more homegrown talent getting into the team?
DP: That’s the long-term plan. We are eventually looking at a Philippines team where we don’t have to rely too much on players from abroad. Our hope is that the current squad raises the interest in football enough so that our current six and nine-year-olds form the basis of a really strong national team in 10 years’ time.
Meanwhile, we have Filipinos abroad willing to play for the country and fast-track this process. Winning translates into popularity and that’s what we need in the Philippines. That catalyst was a good performance in 2010. Basically the interest in the sport is directly related to how the Azkals are fairing in their tournaments and we hope to continue that.