Big dream for Little Azkals
Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - August 10, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - A pool of 22 kids from all over the country will train for the next five years in an ambitious program to qualify for the 2019 FIFA U17 World Cup and the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) is laying the groundwork to achieve the feat with support from the British Council and British Ambassador Asif Anwar Ahmad.

Ambassador Ahmad hosted a lunch in his Forbes Park residence last Thursday to honor the Little Azkals and their sponsors, including Pru Life UK, SM Lifestyle Entertainment and ABS-CBN. PFF president Mariano Araneta, British Council Philippines country director Nicholas Thomas, Azkals star Phil Younghusband, SM Lifestyle Entertainment president Ed Tejerero, ABS-CBN head of News and Current Affairs Ging Reyes and multi-awarded broadcast journalist and producer Che-Che Lazaro attended the affair which also announced the airing of the TV special “Pangarap Kong World Cup” on Channel 2 at 10 tonight.

“When I presented my credentials to President Aquino last year, we spoke about how despite the Philippines’ obsession with basketball, the national team could never win the world championship because of the height factor,” said Ambassador Ahmad. “But in football, it’s different. Through the Little Azkals, we hope to create a dream for the Philippines to make it to the World Cup. Football is the world’s favorite sport and in the US, soccer, as football is called there, is the most widely played sport among the youth, more than baseball, basketball or American football.”

Ambassador Ahmad said because of football’s popularity on a global scale, it has far-reaching commercial implications. He cited the case of Thailand where a potential audience of 10 million is pulled in to watch football matches on TV, particularly when the country’s favorite clubs Liverpool and Manchester United of the Premier League play.

“It’s all about keeping the dream alive,” said Ambassador Ahmad who wore an English football shirt with a single star, depicting the country’s only World Cup title in 1966, over the national team’s emblem. “Whenever there is a World Cup, we English fans believe it will be our year. When we don’t make it, we hold on to our dream for the next World Cup.”

Araneta said there is a misconception that football in the Philippines is a sport for the elite. He pointed out that the PFF has embarked on a widespread, nationwide grassroots development program where kids from all social classes are given an equal opportunity to play the game. Araneta said FIFA continues to support grassroots development programs all over the world and recently sent $250,000 to the PFF as its contribution from the earnings of the recent World Cup in Brazil.

Last year, the Little Azkals went to England on a three-week training trip sponsored by the British Council and Pru Life UK. The team was based in Loughborough University in Leicestershire, played 14 games and even watched two Premier League matches at Wembley Stadium. Delegation official Albert Almendralejo said the Little Azkals finished with a record of eight wins, four draws and two losses. The first outing was a 3-2 loss that was later reversed with a 4-2 win in a rematch.

The FIFA U17 World Cup began in 1985 as the U16 World Championships. The age limit was adjusted to U17 in 1991. The best Asian finish in the biennial tournament was Saudi Arabia’s championship in Scotland in 1989. Three other Asian countries advanced to the semifinals and placed fourth – Bahrain in 1989, Qatar in 1991 and Oman in 1995. The US’ best finish was fourth in 1999.

Nigeria is the most successful country in the FIFA U17 World Cup with four titles and three runner-up trophies. Brazil has won three championships and finished second twice while Ghana and Mexico took two titles each. Last year, Nigeria won its fourth crown, beating Mexico, 3-0, in the final in Dubai. The 2015 edition will be held in Chile and the 2017 tournament in India. No country has been designated to host the 2019 competition which is the Little Azkal’s target to qualify in. There is a plan to bring the Little Azkals to Malaysia for an international U11 invitational tournament in December.

The youngest player in the pool is Cebu’s Yuan Rena who turns 11 on Oct. 8. He is joined in the squad by Don Bosco Technological Center teammates Josh Asignar, 12, Tristan Enad, 12 and Charles Unabia, 12. The pool lists six players from Metro Manila – Robert Orr, 11, of La Salle Greenhills, Michael Osorio, 11, of PAREF Southridge, Jacob Padernal, 12, of Ateneo, Nikko Gutierrez, 12, of Don Bosco Technical Institute in Makati, Shane Clemente, 11, of Acacia Elementary School in Malabon and Vin Joel de la Cruz, 11, of Don Bosco Technical College in Mandaluyong.

Others in the pool are Mark Alanquihan, 12, of Miputak East Central School in Dipolog, Mark Amaikurut, 11, of Ateneo de Davao, Chevey Celeste, 12, of Tandang Sora Elementary School in San Carlos City, Shemrei Marobillo, 11, of Ramon Magsaysay Elementary School in San Carlos City, Joie Gaid, Jr., 12, of Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School in Bukidnon, Greg Naquines, 12, of Abbas Orchard Alwana Complex in Cagayan de Oro, Karl Soloma, 11, of Casa Bambini in Sta. Barbara, Iloilo, Jill Pillora, 11, of Central Philippine University in Jaro, Iloilo, Agiel John Rojo, 11, of Koronadal Central Elementary School, Drexler Valencia, 11, of West City Elementary School in Dumaguete, Ildefonso Escobin, 12, of Lumban Academy-Nittany School in Sta. Cruz, Laguna and Nicolai Abalos, 11, of Halang Elementary School in Calamba.


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