15 November 2011

Insights After the Azkals U-23 SEA Games Loss to Brunei


“I want to thank my teammates for their hard work. You know I will die for my country.” Thus tweeted Jason de Jong, who inherited the captain’s armband after Matthew Hartmann’s unceremonious departure, after last night’s numbing 1-2 loss to Brunei in the 2011 SEA Games football tournament.

“Thanks for all the support. My face is broken and it hurts like hell,” he added in a second tweet, referring to a regrettable collisions with – of all people – his own goalkeeper, Roland Müller, in the second half.

Indeed, it is difficult to fault de Jong – and the rest of the boys – for a campaign that has ultimately turned out to be the exact opposite of national expectations. In a way, it is difficult to comprehend that we even harboured medal hopes just a fortnight ago; and the fact that we finished the campaign propping up the rest of the table merely emphasizes the fact that ambition by itself does not necessarily yield results.



As in the matches against Vietnam and Laos, it was the Philippines who opened the goalscoring last night. Very much like in those two previous matches, we could not hold onto the lead. Unlike those two matches, though, our opening goal was very much in the run of play, a totally deserved 9th minute strike by 11-11-11 hero Joshua Beloya. This match, though, mirrored the Vietnam rather than the Laos game in terms of the eventual outcome.

“It only takes a second to score a goal.” Thus loved to say the late Brian Clough, who brought two consecutive European Cups to tiny English club Nottingham Forest.

The context of that statement runs true at both ends. It is an encouragement to keep pushing forward even when a team is behind; but also to be wary that the opponents do not snatch a cheeky goal at the opposite end.

This was exactly what Brunei did despite our attractive, free-flowing football. In the 18th minute, Adi Said collected a ball just top of our penalty box and stumbled as he tried to make room for a shot. The interception could have been made at the moment of the stumble, but our central defenders stood rooted to the ground, allowing Said to score what was probably a surprise equalizer.



That equalizer was followed by what was probably the most inspired football that our beleaguered under-23 team had played throughout the whole tournament. Chance after chance was created, repulsed by desperate defending, sensational goalkeeping or our own players’ profligacy.

OJ Clariño, in particular, was getting himself at the end of most of the chances. Unfortunately, he forgot to load his pistol before kickoff. Still, it will be difficult to find fault in Clariño, whose selfless running and total commitment was every bit as vital to the flowing football.

As chance after chance went begging, the danger always was that Brunei would snatch the lead against the run of play. This was exactly what happened just four minutes from halftime.

The Philippines conceded a freekick in a dangerous position. Roland Müller spilled the shot – which replays suggested was even curling out – and from the rebound, with the Philippine defense static, Reduan had the easiest of tasks tapping the ball into an empty goal.



Full credit to the Filipino youngsters, they continued to play in the second half exactly as they did in the first. Regrettably, the wastefulness in front of goal continued as well. When three shots in rapid succession were either parried by the Brunei goalkeeper or blocked by its defenders, one sort of got the feeling that it was going to be just one of those days.

Indeed, as the Filipino boys started tiring from the almost relentless pressing, spaces began to open up in midfield and Brunei even started to win some share of possession. Jeff Christiaens, introduced as a second half substitute, clipped the bar with a power drive from the right flank in the 67th minute; but at the other end, Müller pulled off an incredible save with his legs ten minutes later.

The second half was also marred by an unfortunate collision between de Jong and Müller as the Philippine defence was caught on the break. Both players needed lengthy treatment while substitutes were hastily sent to warm up just in case. Both players were able to resume and finish the game; although unfortunately, their heroism could not reverse the game’s outcome.



We have little in the way of choices now except to really applaud the team for the way it has grown as the tournament wore on and and look ahead to 2013. Now is also the time, since our campaign has concluded, to air some insights.

Yes, the team grew and became better with every match. Movement became better; ditto shape and the ability to hold onto possession. Some of Michael Weiss’ constant chopping and changing were forced by circumstance; others were not. Either way, it gave the impression that Weiss was trying to figure out his best eleven as the tournament wore on; not before, as would have been ideal.

Somebody on Twitter said that getting rid of Michael Weiss was not the answer; appointing somebody to devote himself to the U-23s was. I rather tend to agree. Many countries appoint one coach per level of international football; although each coach of the lower levels is supposed to report to the senior coach so that players may be recommended for promotion and team philosophy imbibed by the younger players. There is the funding issue, of course.


As to philosophy, this is where I am caught in something of a bind. As a neutral television spectator, I had enjoyed our play – particularly in the last two matches – when we were pushing forward. Being a football person myself, I know that I will not send any team to play as expansively as we did if I knew that my team has limitations at the back. It is a matter of plain and simple pragmatism; and accepting the strengths and weaknesses of my own team.

The Brunei game was lovely to watch because it flowed from end-to-end. In this regard, though, it was like a college or even high school game. Do we really want our national team to play like this?

I followed the U-17 World Cup earlier this year; and young as the players were, the emphasis in the play was tactical. This meant knowing when to slow down, shuffle the ball at the back while patiently waiting for openings and understanding that the football has to be for 90 – and in some cases 120 – minutes. In international football, most of the time, the football is more about being wily and less about being gung-ho.

I believe, with the exception of Vietnam, that all our opponents showed us the wisdom of building attacks on a solid defensive foundation. It was apparent that our team lacked natural defenders. I am not privy to team affairs, so I do not really know why. There cannot be a shortage of homegrown talents; and to be fair, those who were given chances grasped these with aplomb!


Every player experiences a dip in form. To my mind, though, the one who had suffered the most from being left mostly unprotected was Roland Müller. He gave us one godalmighty show against Vietnam; but how many of his stops in that game could easily have been goals? As the tournament wore on, we started seeing him make uncharacteristic spills, two of which led to the opponents scoring. I hope the lad moves on quickly from this tournament because he is – like Neil Etheridge – a special talent.

Somebody please solve the Mark Hartmann puzzle quickly! Even in the Long Teng Cup, I thought Hartmann was as prodigious as a talent could possibly get. In the SEA Games, if Clariño was the most wasteful in the Brunei game, Hartmann was the most profligate the whole tournament. He knew how to get himself into goalscoring positions, that much I cannot take away from the lad.

Whether he gains the composure to finish these, we will see in 2013. At any rate, he already has the looks more of a goalmaker than a goalscorer; so where to best play him? I would also like to see him in the middle of the box attacking corners rather than taking these; although someone will probably have to teach him how. Pity, what with all that height; especially in Southeast Asia!


A word about de Jong: from the 2010 Suzuki Cup, he has been my favourite thug. He is always first in my list of nominees for a yellow card; and the way he swears at referees – probably in Dutch – when he is shown this never fails to make me guffaw. His tweet about dying for his country endears him all the more to me. I do not believe he has to say which country that is, proud as he wore the armband in the final matches of the SEA Games. The armband has meant a more disciplined de Jong; although it was always too much to ask him to play at the backline. Still, his willingness to play anywhere to serve the cause is very much appreciated.

Dan Palami has already pledged to keep this team all the way to 2013. I do not personally know Palami; but from afar he looks like a decent man. He will probably keep this promise. We have two years to find solutions to problems that were exposed by this tournament. Even then, I hope nobody loses sight of the fact that the under-23 is merely the feeder to the full international side and not the expected finished product. A SEA Games medal will add some sheen to the display room; but it is finding players who can step into the senior side to keep our successes at that level going that is the real objective.

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