DUBAI—Defender Daisuke Sato sobbed as he trudged back to the touchline, while the rest of his battle-weary teammates walked to the Filipino gallery to acknowledge their support.
A promising campaign had an all-too-familiar ending for the Azkals as they bowed out of the AFC Asian Cup on Wednesday night following a 3-1 loss to Kyrgyzstan in their final Group C match at Rashid Stadium here.
While going toe to toe with the big teams in the continent was an experience they will always treasure, the players also felt they could have done better—and that was tough to take for Sato, who, at 24, will still probably be around for another run at qualifying for the continental showpiece.
“My dream is so big for Philippine football that’s why I’m really sad with this result,” said Sato. “This was a great experience for all of us, but we also wanted to be successful here and not just be part of the tournament.”FEATURED STORIES
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Stephan Schrock scored on a free kick in the second half for the country’s first goal in the competition, but it proved to be a consolation as the loss doomed the Azkals’ hopes of making the Round of 16 in their debut in the tournament.
With a two-goal victory, the Kyrgyz side—a team that the Azkals have already beaten twice—took the second of the four available spots for the best third-placed team in the knockout round.
A fighting performance in a 1-0 defeat to South Korea on Jan. 7 raised hopes of a strong campaign for the Azkals here. They suffered a 3-0 loss to China in Abu Dhabi four days later, which left them with a must-win match against a resurgent Central Asian side.
Schrock felt that, with better preparation, the Azkals could have given a better account of themselves in the tournament.
“We were all down in the locker room,” said Schrock. “As I’ve said this was a tough loss and it’s the third in a row. Besides the fact that we represented the country for the first time, we gave it our all, we did our best, but with the lack of preparation this was the best possible outcome for us.”
Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose contract with the team ran out after their exit, believes the Azkals have a bright future ahead as long as they keep the core of the squad intact.
“I think this is a good group that should continue playing together,” said the Swede, who handled the team starting last November.
Senior football advisor Scott Cooper will temporarily take the reins for the Azkals, who will see action in the next cycle of World Cup Qualifying late this year.
Having an Asian Cup appearance under their belts, the current Azkals think they’ve laid the foundation for future Filipino national teams to believe that they can compete on this stage.
“The level is not too far away,” said Phil Younghusband. “We still have a lot to work on, but the main positive, we’re not too far away. It is actually a lot closer than it used to be. This was our first time in the Asian Cup and a lot of people would have expected us to roll over against other teams, but we didn’t. Still we feel we can be better.”