Dubai: The Philippines striker Phil Younghusband has set his sights on AFC Asian Cup qualification in order to breathe new life into the national team.
The Azkals, or Street Dogs, who will play Azerbaijan in a friendly at Al Shabab Stadium from 7pm on Wednesday, became overnight heroes in 2010 when they reached the semi-finals of the Suzuki Cup for South-East Asian teams for the first time in their history.
Since then, the team, who are largely composed of players with mixed heritage, has given basketball a run for its money as the country’s most popular sport.
They made it to the second round of 2014 Fifa World Cup qualification, finished third in the AFC Challenge Cup and reached the semi-finals of the Suzuki Cup in 2012.
However, despite currently maintaining their highest position in the Fifa world rankings of 127th, the squad’s allure has started to fade.
And unless they can qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup through outright victory in the AFC Challenge Cup in May, they risk slipping back into obscurity.
“When something new comes out the hype is big,” said Younghusband, 26, who along with his 27-year-old brother James has enjoyed boy-band-like popularity since moving back to his late mother’s native Philippines from the UK in 2010.
“It does plateau, it does peak and the difficult part is sustaining that. I think there is still awareness, but the more successful the team can be the greater that awareness will grow,” added the former Chelsea reserve team player, whose efforts with the national team have helped lead to 65,000 Filipino children playing football at grassroots level.
“The 2010 Suzuki Cup was a big time for us,” he added. “The team was on the news everyday, but it’s hard to find more news about the team nowadays. It’s not as hectic or as busy.
“Football was new to the Filipinos back then and it was a big thing for them, but now everyone is aware. The challenge now is to do it again and progress even further. I think that if we can do well in the Challenge Cup and get into the Asian Cup, that will bring life back into Philippines football again.”