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Azkals stand taller with strong AFC finish

CEBU, Philippines (Mar 21 2012) – The Philippine Azkals and fans relish their third place finish in a major international tournament that boosts further their stature in the soccer world.

The recent AFC Challenge Cup in Kathmandu, Nepal showed the Azkals that they could do it even in the face of strong rivals like eventual back-to-back titlist North Korea and former champions India and Tajikistan.

“I think the third place reflects what we’ve already seen in (pre-Challenge Cup training camp in Dubai) a wonderful group growing together, showing a never-give-up attitude,” said Azkals coach Michael Weiss during the team’s layover at the VIP Room of the Mactan Cebu International Airport.

The history-making Azkals are on a high after winning the bronze medal in the Challenge Cup via a pulsating 4-3 conquest of Palestine Monday. It’s now the biggest achievement for the Phl football team in recent memory.

“We more than deserve the third place,” said Weiss. “We had some difficult things to overcome and some difficult times to overcome but we’ve managed it in a wonderful way.”

The feat, according to Phil Younghusband, will naturally tag along higher expectations from the overachieving team as it moves forward to the next battles.

“Having played against the strong teams and go to another level, people will now expect us to get the results. Expectations will be high now when we go into the (AFF) Suzuki Cup in December. Anything less than qualification to the semis, will be a huge, huge disappointment,” said Younghusband.

He added that as players, “we also want to go a step further knowing we have the ability and potential to do it.”

After receiving their bronze medals at the Dashrath Stadium, the Azkals immediately left chilly Kathmandu on board DragonAir that stopped over in Dhaka en route to Hong Kong. They switched to Cathay Airways on the way to the Queen City of the South, where they whiled away four hours before eventually leaving for Manila on board Cebu Pacific.

Some played a game of cards during the lull. Others checked out their emails and social media accounts. Some seized the opportunity to get a massage and others took a can or two of beer.

Along the way, they entertained some Cebuano fans who congratulated them for their magical run in the Challenge Cup.

The celebration is just about to start.

Weiss said the Azkals will take a break and resume twice-a-week sessions by mid-April. Their next immediate campaign will be a series of friendlies with possibly ASEAN rivals like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia during the Fifa match days in June that the Philippine Football Federation is arranging.

And finally, there’s the AFF Suzuki Cup – the tournament that started it all for the Azkals – later in the year. The Azkals will try to duplicate, if not surpass, the semis finish in 2010, their best performance prior to the milestone Challenge Cup bronze.

“It’s great to have achieved success in such a strong level and I think that will give us confidence going to the Suzuki Cup,” said Younghusband, who on personal note achieved an added laurel in winning the tourney’s Golden Boot award.

But the Azkals are fully aware they are still a work-in-progress.

“It takes time. The more we got to play at a high level (like the Challenge Cup, the better we’ll get,” Younghusband said.

“(The Challenge Cup) showed us we still have big areas of improvement, especially defense. Offensively, we scored many goals, we had many options even (we’re) if not cohesive yet. But we have the individual skills which can be transformed into goals,” Weiss said.

The Azkals scored a total of nine goals throughout the Challenge Cup, with Younghusband accounting for a tournament-best six. (From