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No longer the bridesmaids: Five 2015 wishes for Philippines Football

The Azkals reached their third consecutive AFF Suzuki Cup semifinal and were runners up in the AFC Challenge Cup in 2014.

The past 12 months must go down in Philippine football history as a year of what might have been. Runners up in the latest edition of the AFC Challenge Cup and semifinalists for the third time in the AFF Suzuki Cup, the Azkals will look back at the past 12 months with justifiable regret.

Finishing runners up to unfancied Myanmar in the PFF Peace Cup, an annual tournament held in the Philippines in September, was the icing on the bittersweet cake.

Still, the optimist in us sees only positive things for 2015. Here are five wishes for the New Year:

Coach Thomas Dooley has introduced a possession-based passing game after the previous long-ball approach.

1. Build on the momentum of 2014

Although disappointment could be the theme for 2014, it is imperative for the Philippine Football Federation (PFF) and national team management to build on the gains of recent times and move forward in a positive way.

The Azkals were just 90 minutes and a goal from earning a spot at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia. Getting within a whisker of the big dance would represent tremendous despair for most nations, but it is worthwhile to consider just how far Philippines football has come in the past four years.

Coach Thomas Dooley's impending contract extension is certainly a good sign. Dooley has transformed the Azkals' play from the dour long-ball approach of the Hans Michael Weiss era to a more eye-catching, possession-based passing game that seems better suited to the team. Going away quietly in the 2014 semifinals of the Suzuki Cup would have left a bad taste in most fans' mouths. But the Azkals have a lot to build on for 2015.

On paper, the Philippines are still the highest ranked Southeast Asian country. It is hoped the country translates that FIFA number into trophies on the pitch.

Striker Phil Younghusband is one of the four surviving members from the 2010 team that reached the Suzuki Cup semfinals for the first time.

2. Bring new faces into the Azkals

Only four players remained from the historic Azkals' team that made the run in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup -- brothers Phil and James Younghusband, Chris Greatwich and captain Rob Gier.

New faces have come and gone, with some players more memorable than others. Through it all, there is this palpable sense this golden generation of the Azkals is slipping by without any significant silverware, which is a shame.

Dooley has made it his priority to bring on young talents from the local United Football League (UFL), albeit at the cost of alienating foreign-based standouts such as Greuther Furth's Stephan Schrock, Neil Etheridge, and Dennis Cagara.

Dooley's initiative, however, has paid dividends, as the likes of Amani Aguinaldo, Simone Rota, and Daisuke Sato proved to be key cogs in the Azkals lineup.

Melbourne City attacking midfielder Iain Ramsay, Nurnberg's Mike Ott and Kuwait Qadsia SC defender Alvaro Silva are some names linked to the Azkals. But a true number 9 would be most welcome to support the oft-marked Phil Younghusband.

Dooley's localised approach has alienated foreign-based players such as goalkeeper Neil Etheridge.

3. Go deep in the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers

To ask the Philippines to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup would be asking for the moon. But is it too much to request the Azkals progress to, at least, the third round?

The new FIFA World Cup qualifying format ensures teams such as the Philippines are assured of playing eight matches, including four games at home. For a country still trying to integrate football to the mainstream, it is a huge boost. More matches mean more games for the players. It is more exposure for the sport and more chances for fans to catch the games in person.

The new Asian Cup qualifying format also means that should the Philippines fail to make it past the second round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, there is still the chance to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, where there would be 12 slots up for grabs.

4. More support for the UFL

Perhaps the youngest league in Southeast Asian, the UFL has been riding the coattails of the Azkals' popularity and thus has been growing at an exponential rate. To sustain the expansion of football locally, however, it needs to grow even further.

Local clubs have a long way to go to build a genuine fan base. But they would be well advised to develop individual identities so supporters are better able to associate with them. For instance, Global FC has been always been a team composed of Azkals, while Stallion has been proud of its Iloilo roots, ditto Ceres with Bacolod. Manila Jeepney has been acknowledged as the official team of Manila.

With Global and Ceres both participating in the 2015 AFC Cup, local clubs representing the UFL will have a chance to show the region what Filipino club football is all about. Truth be told, there is a wish for Filipino sports' fans to lend their collective support to the UFL and anything football, especially the local sort. It could start from the top. This is, after all, a country in which a leading local sports' channel prioritised showing a delayed telecast of a regular season NBA game in lieu of a live opening Suzuki Cup match involving the Philippines in November.

The significance of a strong domestic league cannot be stressed enough, but it remains a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Azkals have to do well to attract casual fans to watch local football. But the UFL has to prosper for the Azkals to succeed.

The PFF must develop age group football at the grassroots to produce more players such as Emilio 'Chieffy' Caligdong.

5. More Development Of Youth Football

After the Azkals were defeated by a youthful Thailand team in the Suzuki Cup semifinals, the question on many fans' minds was 'Where did they get so many talented players?' They did not appear from nowhere. The youthful core of the AFF-winning team was nurtured through the youth system. It has gone through many tough challenges, including the 2013 SEA Games. They left Myanmar with gold medals hanging around their necks, and at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea they finished fourth.

To emulate the Thais' success, it is important to develop grassroots and feeder programs to provide continuity and reduce reliance on foreign-based Azkals.

Youngsters should also be given the chance to participate in regional competitions. The PFF has lined up a busy 2015, with plans to field teams in the AFC and AFF U-14, U-16, U-19 tournaments.

It was an atrocious and embarrassingly short-sighted mistake in 2013, when the country did not send a team to the SEA Games because the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) and Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) deemed "only gold medalists in the previous SEA Games and potential gold medal performers are to be included in the final roster." That must never be repeated.

It is hoped that through this, Philippines can produce more Amani Aguinaldos and Chieffy Caligdongs. And at the same time, discover their own versions of Chanathip Songkrasin and Kawin Thamsatchanan.

Manila-based Ryan Fenix is football columnist for Sports5 Philippines and analyst for InterAksyon.com. He is also a FIFA Ballon d'Or juror.

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