Normally a hard man to please, national team coach Hans Michael Weiss expressed his satisfaction over the Azkals United's 1-1 draw against Icheon Citizen FC of Korea, even though the Koreans went on to win it 4-2 on penalties.
"The result was a very good result for us against an opponent which is at our level," Weiss said. "I think this is the kind of opponent that we have to look for and we have to play with. With this kind of quality opponents we really can make a very good level in the near future. With the grassroots development coming in the next five to ten years, the Philippines can become a very good football power.
"If you take into consideration that basically we had only three days of training with this group, and that the players don't know each other and that they have never played together, it was even more fantastic."
Weiss was forced to tap several members of the under-23 Azkals after United Football League Loyola Meralco Sparks and Kaya LBC FC refused to release their players for the charity match. Among the senior players who missed the match were the Younghusband brothers, Anton Del Rosario, Nate Burkey, Lexton Moy and Jason Sabio.
But it may have been a blessing in disguise as several of the younger national players seized the opportunity to shine. Specifically, young guns Misagh Bahadoran, Jerry Barbaso, and Carli De Murga showed fine form, meshing well with Azkals veterans Chieffy Caligdong, Angel Guirado, Ian Araneta, Rob Gier and Roel Gener and newcomer Denis Wolf to put up a good fight against the Koreans.
Bahadoran combined well with Caligdong, Araneta and Wolf up front, and he and Wolf gave Weiss a couple more options on offense. This forced Weiss to move Guirado, normally a forward, to midfield, where the big Fil-Spaniard sometimes had trouble dribbling against a swarm of smaller but quicker players.
Barbaso also gave a good account of himself, teaming up with Gier, Gener, and Boogie Margarse in the back four, while De Murga held the fort in midfield. The defense had only one big miscue in the game, and unfortunately it led to a goal by Bin Tae Kwan in the 21st minute, but otherwise the four defenders were solid.
But no player shone brighter than 21-year-old Marwin Angeles, who entered the game in the second half and went on to score the equalizing goal in the 88th minute. Angeles was one of the last players cut from the under-23 team that competed in last November's Southeast Asian Games, and he made the most of this chance that Weiss gave him. Gathering a corner kick from Bahadoran, the Fil-Italian found himself with plenty of room at the top of the box and unleashed a shot that keeper Go Hyun Bok couldn't save.
"I'm happy that Marwin was able to show what he has already showed somehow in Indonesia during our unsuccessful campaign," Weiss said. "I think now in the Philippines it is very important to see that we get a pool of young and interesting players."
"I'm so glad because this is my first game with the Azkals and I was able to score a goal," Angeles said.
"The locals today, I was very glad," Weiss continued. "They showed a lot of spirit. And I'm very happy with the game. I'm very happy with the spirit of the team. There were no gestures, no negative movement on the pitch, and stuff like that, which we have sometimes on the senior team. We should show this tape to some of the senior players and show them how a good a team can work and how fantastic a team can help each other and show very nice fighting attitude and never-say-die attitude. I like that very much."
As for Wolf, who flew in last week, Weiss was also impressed.
"Denis is an experienced player. He has four Bundesliga matches. He's 29 years and can hold the ball well. I'm very satisfied, I think he can be a very good plus for our team."
Wolf came close to scoring a few times in the second half, although he flashed his anger twice at the referee in the first half over what he felt was poor officiating. The most controversial call came midway through the first half, when Wolf was taken down near the top of the box. Lead referee Wilfredo Bermejo initially signaled for a penalty kick, but linesman Grant Rojas raised his flag and signaled a free kick from just outside the box. Replays showed it was close, with initial contact appearing to take place just before Wolf stepped out of the box, although Wolf landed outside the box.
"The most controversial point was in the first half," Weiss said. "I mean, everybody could see it was a clear penalty. I can't understand the linesman. If I'm the linesman and the referee is already signaling a penalty, why would I lift the flag? Absolutely not understandable. It would have totally changed the match. Why did he raise the flag? He doesn't know himself."
This game did show that the Azkals have a deep pool of talent, and Weiss said he wouldn't hesitate using the younger ones if he will continue having trouble securing the services of his veterans. He is also keen on bringing some of the younger players to their Dubai training camp.
"I think now the hard work of last year is paying off. Not only the so-called stars, but we can build another team with promising young players, the experienced players and the local-based players. So we have to see now how far we can promote these players.
"Honestly I was a little bit worried ahead of the game because the preparations were close to zero, so I'm extremely proud of this team who performed on this comparatively high level against a good opponent. Most of these players will get a reward, taking them to the camp in Dubai and give them more exposure.
"For the big tournaments, of course, we will rely more on higher quality. But at the same time, we should look at these people. They have really performed very well. I said to my coaching staff, 'That was one of the nicest games we've done here', regardless of the result."
Weiss also couldn't help taking a dig at the UFL, whose ongoing league tournament has made it difficult for some of the Azkals to practice regularly for the upcoming AFC Challenge Cup.
"The Azkals don't have the full support anymore," Weiss said. "We are ahead of a very, very big tournament and we have a very important match for the people in Mindanao and we can't even get all the players from the league. That is pitiful in my view. I hope that the UFL considers at some point and understand that the Azkals have a very big meaning for this country, that we need the players regularly and not only once or twice a week.
"With this preparation, I'm a little bit worried about the result in the Challenge Cup. It will be very difficult. We as a team always try our very best, but the others are not sleeping. North Korea is already training three months full power and training three times a day. We train two times a week."