The Philippine Azkals made history, securing entry into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup, with a dramatic 2-1 over against Tajikistan on Tuesday night at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium in Manila.
Longtime striker Phil Younghusband nailed his 50th international goal while Kevin Ingreso scored the equalizer for the Azkals.
The unbeaten Philippines topped group F with 12 points on three wins and as many draws en route to clinching a berth in the continental tourney next year.
“We made history today for Philippine football. I can’t describe my feelings right now. I think it will take a few weeks for it to sink in—to believe what we achieved. We deserved it,” said Ingreso, who earned the Man of the Match plum.
After a scoreless first half, Tajikistan got the opening goal in the 64th minute when Nazarov Akhtam converted a penalty kick given up by Ingreso.
The defensive midfielder though made up for his mistake 10 minutes later, heading home a lovely cross by Iain Ramsay to tie the scores.
Ramsay then sent a free kick inside the box, finding the unmarked substitute Patrick Reichelt who won a penalty call. Younghusband coolly sank his shot from the spot in the last minute of the regulation.
A late game commotion marred the intense match, resulting in the ejection of Filipino defender Dennis Villanueva and Tajik booter Fathuloev Fathullo. It did not dampen the celebration nonetheless as the 4,600-plus crowd chanted “Asian Cup,” following the final whistle.
“In those four years that I’m here, this is the best team that we had,” said national head coach Thomas Dooley.
It was also a significant night for Younghusband who also notched his 50th goal for the national team. The seasoned captain though was much more delighted with the Philippines securing an appearance in the quadrennial tournament.
“The feeling of going to the Asian Cup, that’s the thing that matters for me. As I’ve said before, whether it came in this game or ten games time, the 50th wasn’t on my mind. It was about getting the win,” he said.
Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who has been playing for the national team for a long time along with Phil and his brother James Younghusband, was emotional after the game.
“It was a massive moment for Philippine football. It has been 10 years in the making since I started. It’s a fantastic journey,” said a teary-eyed Etheridge.
Etheridge and the Younghusbands together with some mainstays were a win away from qualifying for the Asian Cup in 2015. The Philippines, however, lost 0-1 to Palestine in the finals of the AFC Challenge Cup 2014.
Team manager Dan Stephen Palami recalled their tough journey.
“We’ve been through a lot especially me, I’ve seen players and coaches come and go. We’ve not always been successful. But to make it to the bigger stage after all the heartaches, I’m very glad. It’s a feeling that can’t be described,” beamed the chief backer.
With an Asian Cup berth now in the bag, the Philippines will brace for a tougher tournament in the United Arab Emirates next year.
The Azkals are set to slug it out with 23 other teams that include powerhouse squads Iran, Japan, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China and Australia.
Dooley, who is awaiting the renewal of his contract, said his wards would relish their sweet victory first.
“Right now, after the game, we had the biggest success in Philippine football. We will find out what we are going to do as we spend a little bit more time together,” he said.