AMAZING FILIPINAS: THE NEW TOAST OF THE PHILIPPINE SPORTS WORLD
Amazing.” This word aptly describes the 20-month period from January 2022 to August 2023, as the Philippine Women’s National Football Team (PWNFT) completed its transformation from a struggling team to new sports heroines. A string of victories leading to the team’s maiden appearance at football’s biggest stage made the period something that will forever be etched in Filipino football fans’ memory.
The 2022 Women’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup in January of last year proved to be a golden start for the Philippine team, known as Filipinas. They not only pulled off a number of upsets, but reached the semifinals en route to the country’s first-ever qualification to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. FIFA, or Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is the world’s governing body for football, and is responsible for staging major tournaments, the biggest of which is the World Cup.
Come August 2023, Filipinas entered the World Cup shrouded in mystery, not just because this was the team’s World Cup debut, but because none of the team members comes from major European or North American clubs. In the end however, the team clearly proved that they could compete with the best of the world, as they recorded the country’s first goal and first win in the quadrennial sports spectacle.
The biggest victory in Philippine women’s football history— for former Filipinas head coach Alen Stajcic, the biggest Philippine team sports victory—did not come overnight.
Aside from the AFC Cup, Filipinas took part in regional competitions, with each victory further cementing the teams’ place in the world football map.
Raring to prove that their AFC Cup victory was no fluke, the Filipina footballers set their eyes on ending a 36-year medal drought at the 36th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in May 2022. The team snagged the bronze, finishing behind Thailand and repeat champion Vietnam.
Two months later, Filipinas captured the country’s maiden ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Women’s Championship title. The team barrelled through the 11-team field, beating defending champion Vietnam in the semifinals before blanking world 43rd-ranked Thailand in the finals.
A number of friendlies with higher-ranked teams further prepared the Filipinas for the teams’ biggest test. Friendlies are exhibition matches arranged between teams for instance as part of their preparation for competitions. These serve as opportunities for teams to be exposed to various styles of play and to gauge their ability as a team.
Filipinas shared the football pitch with world number 27 Ireland in June, before 37th-ranked Costa Rica hosted them in October. A couple of friendlies with the 38th-ranked Chilean national team in November 2022 as part of an 11-day training camp held in cooperation with the Football Federation of Chile came next. The team capped off 2022 with a training camp in Australia wherein they faced off with then-reigning Oceania Confederation Women’s Nations Cup champion and world number 50 Papua New Guinea.
An initially undisclosed friendly with the top-ranked United States (US) team also took place before the World Cup competition.
The team ended 2022 with a FIFA ranking of No. 53, by then their highest-ever.
Team Captain Tahnai Annis aptly verbalized the clear view that the team members had about their participation in the World Cup. While recognizing the fact that qualifying for the World Cup is in itself already a historic feat for the Philippines and the national team, she pointed out that it would not do the team and Filipinos in general for them to “just show up and play.” They had to “do well and compete,” said the four-year national team veteran, in order to bring more awareness and help sustain the growth of football in the country.
That the team was able to keep its focus despite a number of hurdles is a testament to their determination. Team members had to deal with strict COVID-19 health protocols during their preparation for the AFC Cup. They had to make sure that no one got sick even as they had to improve their performance as a team.
A major issue team members had to face was criticisms saying they are “not Filipino enough.” Eighteen out of the 23 team members were born in the United States, and have physical features quite different from that of the “typical” Filipino woman. The issue, however, did not affect the team a bit. US-born Annis stressed that it does not matter whether they grew up in the Philippines or elsewhere, as long as they were one in their goal of playing for the country.
BLAZING A TRAIL
Central to Filipinas’ success was Stajccic, who took the PWFNT to heights never before reached by the team. With him at the helm, the team bagged its first AFF Women’s Championship title, made its best SEA Games finish in 37 years by bagging a bronze medal, and reached the AFC Women’s Asian Cup semifinals, in the process qualifying for the Women’s World Cup.
Of course, the highlight was the Filipinas’ first World Cup appearance, where they also recorded the country’s first goal and first win. The Filipina booters did not just show up; their group stage victory over host New Zealand placed them within one win away from the knockout rounds. The knockout stage features the top two teams from each of the eight groups in the group stage. A team must tally a W in four consecutive win-or-lose matches spanning the Round of 16, Quarterfinals, Semifinals, and Finals matches in order to win the tournament. They eventually finished at 24th place among 32 participating teams.
Filipinas’ group stage win brought their winning tally under Stajcic to 25 out of 42 matches.
Fresh from their historic World Cup win, Stajcic, together with assistant coach Nahuel Arrarte, chose not to renew his contract as he wanted to “explore other options.” He summarized his almost two-year stint with the Filipinas as a journey from being “outsiders” in the Southeast Asian football scene to achieveing a historic one-match victory at the World Cup. He eventually found himself coaching Perth Glory Football Club in the A-League Men, Australia’s top-tier football league.
Still, Filipinas members remain grateful to Stajcic for his contributions to the team’s growth. Chandler McDaniel pointed out that his program gave the team a strong foundation that will outlast his stint as coach. Katrina Guillou meanwhile said that Stajcic made Filipinas members believe in themselves, and brought out the best in them.
Clearly, having a competent coach with a clear plan for continued training and exposure to world-class opponents, as well as getting the needed support from the Philippine Football Federation—the country’s governing body for football—made a world of difference for Filipinas.
Stajcic’s departure, however, has not dampened the spirits of the team members. Quinley Quezada described Stajcic as a “huge part” of the team but chose to look at the bright side, saying “we still have our own entire team…and our core values.”
NEW COACH, CONTINUED HOPE
Taking Stajcic’s place is his compatriot Mark Torcaso, the reigning A-League Women’s Coach of the Year. The accomplished coach will retain his head coaching job with Melbourne-based team Western United, even as he tries to build on the momentum of Filipinas’ recent success.
Looking forward to his first international coaching coaching job, Torcaso defined his appointment as “a dream come true.” He expressed excitement to work with the team, and more so to “bring more success to this nation.”
Named as Torcaso’s assistants were South Melbourne Football Club technical director Sinisa Cohadzic and A-League legend and Western United assistant coach Andrew Durante.
Philippine football stakeholders led by Philippine Football Federation President Mariano Araneta expressed optimism with the new development. “We are confident that [the new coaching staff] will continue raising the standards of the Philippine Women’s National Team…and take the team to greater heights,” he said.