Images by Alen Stajcic © Gallo
In a country obsessed with beauty pageants, basketball and boxing, the Philippines women’s team hopes to spark interest in soccer when it makes its World Cup debut this week.
The Philippines, who have been around the sport for a long time, have never played in a FIFA World Cup, either men’s or women’s.
All that will change on Friday when the women’s team led by Australian coach Alen Stajcic plays Switzerland in Dunedin, New Zealand.
Stajcic calls his journey from “almost ground zero” to the World Cup “miraculous.”
Half of his players don’t belong to a professional club and some have been “running around the block by themselves” to train, he said.
“It’s been a kind of meteoric rise for the team,” the 49-year-old told AFP via Zoom ahead of the World Cup.
“The challenge for us is to somehow maintain and sustain that improvement, not be happy with where we got to.”
Since Stajcic’s appointment as head coach at the end of 2021, the Philippines has jumped from 68th in the FIFA rankings to 46th, the best ever.
It started with the Women’s Asian Cup in early 2022 when they reached the semifinals, lost to South Korea but secured a historic World Cup berth.
They followed up with bronze at the Southeast Asian Games last year, then won the AFF Women’s Regional Championship on home soil.
‘WE HAVE NO FIELDS’
The Philippines is in Group A of the World Cup along with co-hosts New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland.
They are not expected to come out of the group, but defender Hali Long said: “I would like to think that we are going to come in and do more than just participate.
“We’re going to race there with everything we have to show for it.”
The team hopes that leading the Philippines to its first World Cup could be a game changer for soccer in the country.
Long was born in the United States; most of the players for the national team have been recruited from the large Philippine diaspora.
“It’s not the most popular sport here,” Long told AFP at a practice session for his club in Manila ahead of the World Cup.
“It’s not beauty pageants, boxing and basketball; we don’t have a ‘B’.”
Goalkeeper Inna Palacios, one of the few players born in the Philippines, said more investment is needed to find and develop young talent in the poverty-stricken country.
“We don’t have the courts or a place to play,” Palacios said.
“It was labeled as a … sport for rich people who can afford fields and shoes, but really you just need your feet and a ball.”
PLAYING TO CATCH UP
Stajcic is one of the main reasons for the improvement of the Philippines.
He brings a wealth of experience from a playing and coaching career in Australia.
He coached Australia in the 2015 World Cup and led the Matildas to fourth in the FIFA rankings, but was ruled out despite guiding them to the 2019 tournament.
Stajcic says that being able to assemble the team for extended periods, including a 10-week training camp in the United States before the Asian Cup, has been another reason for his spectacular recovery.
But it will take all of her intelligence and knowledge to make the Philippines competitive in a women’s game that is at an all-time high in Europe and North America.
“Women’s football in the last five years has seen exponential growth,” Stajcic said.
“The rest of the world is already a hundred steps ahead of us.”
Despite that, he’s backing his team to make an impact if they “do everything right.”
“We’re going to need a bit of luck,” Stajcic said.
“We are going to have to take advantage of our luck, we are going to have to give ourselves all the possible opportunities in our preparation.”