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AFF Championship

'We were missing some of Southeast Asia's biggest names' - Inside Philippines' complicated Suzuki Cup with Schrock, Bias & Reichelt

10:02 EAT 22/12/2021
Philippines Stephan Schrock
Things did not go quite to plan for the Azkals, but they are adamant it was not all bad as they brought some joy to the people back home

As the final whistle went at Bishan Stadium, bringing an end to both Philippines’ clash with Myanmar and their AFF Suzuki Cup campaign as a whole, the Azkals players shared some consolatory embraces and high fives as they made their way off the pitch.

It had been a tournament of mixed feelings for the team - the bitter disappointment of having crashed out in the group stages mitigated to an extent by the experience and minutes afforded to young, fresh faces looking to form the next generation of Philippine football.

Indeed, ahead of this tournament, only 10 of the 24 players selected for the Suzuki Cup had more than 10 caps to their name, and big names in the form of Neil Etheridge, Manny Ott and Carli de Murga had failed to make the trip to Singapore.

It was always going to be an uphill task for the team, but it was one they embraced wholeheartedly.

“It’s been a great time,” revealed Azkals captain, Stephan Schrock to GOAL. “People here are amazing, they treat us well. The waiter, hotel staff, everyone, they are very friendly, very helpful.”

“It always is in Singapore!” added forward Patrick Reichelt. “If you’re like Schrocky and me, who have come here many times, we’ve never had a bad experience in Singapore. Been here 10, 15 times, easily.”

Having secured routine wins over Timor Leste and Myanmar and lost to an admittedly superior Thailand side, many observers have pinpointed the loss to hosts Singapore in their opening Group A fixture as the one which did the damage to their semi-final hopes. It was almost a reverse of the situation in 2018- back then, it was a 1-0 victory for the Azkals over Singapore in Bacolod City which saw them pip the Lions to 2nd place. However, when asked if the Singapore side of 2021 was superior to the one they faced three years ago, captain Schrock was having none of it.

“To me personally, it wasn't so much about Singapore and what they did well, it was about what we didn't do well in the opening game of the competition,” he said defiantly. “You have to understand we have like five players in the starting line-up who hadn’t competed or haven't touched a ball in six months.”

“We are all separated in all kinds of different parts of the world, when football stopped in the Philippines. So five of the starters haven’t touched a ball in six months. And then we have a different level of fitness, obviously. There were 26 players who couldn't come to this AFF Suzuki Cup for personal reasons, quarantine restrictions, not getting released by their clubs - these guys are key players. We're not talking about fillers; we're talking about probably the biggest names in Southeast Asia.”

He wasn’t alone in believing his side were a better team than their hosts - teammate Reichelt insisted on the same, and pinned the blame for the defeat on inadequate preparations in the Philippines camp.

“Individually and as a team, we are definitely better than Singapore,” proclaimed the midfielder. “Schrocky only joined a couple of nights before the game, along with many players who hadn’t played. It's not easy. You saw what preparation can do - Singapore had three camps maybe in the past three months? They had one just before the Suzuki Cup. They are in regular league football.

“We have players, if you look at the squad, with zero caps, you know, like they don't have senior games. That's what we have to deal with now.

“And to be fair, I think we did pretty well, taking all those things into account. We slept for two minutes against Singapore, and they scored two goals."

Speaking about the mood in the dressing room after their opening day defeat, Schrock admitted it had been a bitter pill to swallow for the Philippines players, but went on to quantify that their overall performance had been impacted by the knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of which being the lack of regular league football in the Philippines. 

“You’re never satisfied with not getting all three points or just with a draw. You're always looking for improvement, looking for in what areas did we do well or not so well, like I said, considering all these things,” he elaborated.

“At the end of the day, no one cares if we had 20 weeks of preparation, or six days or three days or two days. But this is something very, very difficult for us to deal with for us as a squad. For us, as a federation, as a nation, Covid restrictions were quite strict in the Philippines, and we couldn't get the league, we couldn't get official games going. There's no replacement for a game, and you could tell by the opening game against Singapore.”

Schrock, bemusingly, was subject to the ire and anger of the Singapore fans in the stadium during that game, as an early challenge on Lions frontman Ikhsan Fandi saw his every touch booed by the locals for the entirety of the match. It takes a strong character not to wilt with 10,000 unhappy supporters on your back for 90 minutes, but it was something the United City midfielder was happy to take in his stride.

“Things like that don't throw me off. I’ve been booed by 80,000 people already, so this 10,000, I just pushed through for the whole duration of the game. For me, couldn't care less,” he chuckled.

It’s not the first time the midfielder has found himself hounded by Singapore football fans. Having contested an AFC Cup match with Home United while playing for Ceres Negros in 2018, Schrock was hissed and jeered at by over 3000 fans at the Jalan Besar Stadium, in a game which saw the Protectors crowned Asean Zonal Champions. 

“I’m a favourite here in Singapore!” he joked. “It’s me and Hariss Harun!”

With the opening game out of the way, the onus was on the Azkals to respond in their second outing against Timor Leste, and they did so in style. A blitz of first half goals saw them take a 6-0 lead at half time, which allowed them to take their foot off the gas in the second.

A confident, assertive second half display saw the Philippines keep the ball well, before topping it off with a seventh goal 12 minutes from time. It was a dominant display from the team, who looked determined to get their campaign off and running.

“Before the game, we talked about a perfect scenario. The perfect scenario was to finish the game as quick and fast as possible so we can have players rest and we achieved that by going 6-0 at half-time and we were able to do five substitutions, which we hoped would be helpful for the next game,” noted Reichelt.

Ultimately, it was not to be- a 2-1 defeat to Thailand in their next match condemned the Philippines to a first group stage elimination since 2016, and meant that Singapore and Thailand would be Group A’s two representatives in this year’s knockout stage. However, the campaign wasn’t a failure, in Schrock’s eyes- far from it.

“To be honest, we’re not terribly upset. People are happy in this tournament and we want to achieve something for the Philippines, for all our families back home. That's what matters to us, and if I get a nice message back from some family or something that they're happy and proud of the result, that’s nice,” he stated, concluding the interview.