A meteoric campaign in the Women’s Asian Cup saw the Philippines qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time in its history.
The Filipinos bowed out after an exhausting but fighting 0-2 loss to Korea Republic in the semifinal, and Sarina Bolden, who scored in the penalty shootout against Chinese Taipei in the quarterfinals, was clearly emotional about the team’s progress in the tournament.
“This team has grown so much. In the past couple of years, look how far we’ve come. We played against teams like Nepal, Myanmar and we were barely able to keep people down but look at now, we are competing with Australia and [South] Korea,” she said almost breathlessly.
“I am so proud of this team and what we’ve brought to the table. A lot of people doubted us but we fought in every single game and now we’ve made a name for ourselves. Philippines you’re going to remember this team and you’re going to see us in the World Cup. So don’t forget about us, we’re coming back,” she added.
A fearless group
In a tournament that seems to enjoy underdog success, the Filipino storyline is perhaps best described as fearless. This was a young side with no player above the age of 27. While a handful of players ply their trade in foreign football systems in the USA, Japan and parts of Europe, this side doesn’t really have the security blanket of experience to tuck in to when the going got tough. Ranked 64th in the world at the moment, the side was drawn alongside Indonesia (#94th) and better-placed Thailand (#38th) and Australia (#11th).
Its run to the semifinal began with a 1-0 win over Thailand, an opponent it had not defeated in 12 previous attempts. The side fell to a 0-4 loss against Australia but was by no means hapless in this game. Its defensive strategies and grit held off the Matildas for 51 minutes before captain Sam Kerr broke the deadlock. The Philippines bounced back in style with a 6-0 thrashing of Indonesia, storming into its second consecutive Asian Cup quarterfinal.
“We did have some injuries (vs Australia). Our first two keepers were both injured, we could only bring Kristina Guillou on for a little bit at the end. They’re a couple of key players and we also have some COVID issues as well. We weren’t at full strength, which shows how impressive the performance was,” head coach Alen Stajcic, who came on board as recently as October 2021, said after the Australia loss.
“The players in the squad want to change the game back home. They want to be inspirational to the next generation and they’ve spoken about that often.”
Becoming inspiration takes effort and it took a Herculean one from the girls to get past Chinese Taipei as nothing separated the teams after 120 minutes of a play, the Phillipines finally going through to the semifinal 4-3 on penalties.
Stajcic’s girls are a vocal bunch. You can hear constant chatter on the field, instructions and encouragement in their local tongue and English flying across the pitch; pep talks to the ’keeper through every defensive passage, a bench adding to it all. The nervous energy translates to their style of play, too. They are quick and active - even if they find themselves chasing their opponents in a game, they are not ones to fall back and be passive.
Naturally then, when the side booked its maiden World Cup berth, there was no stopping the celebrations. No cramps, winded energy or the aches and pains of a long game could dampen the joy.
“Filipinos, our resilience is legendary. No matter what, you will see Filipinos putting their heart and soul into everything they do. You saw girls over communicating, screaming, yelling no matter where they were. That’s just how we do it. We are loud, we are proud,” Bolden said in the mixed zone after the game.
The semifinal saw this side take on an equally charged up South Korean outfit - the very team that had denied it its shot at making it to the 2019 edition of the Women’s World Cup. However, that weight no longer hung over its shoulders and the team tried to match South Korea toe to toe in the semifinal. Two simple first half goals effectively stamped the game in the latter’s favour but the clearly exhausted Malditas did not give up. The team fought valiantly to deny the South Koreans any opportunity to increase that lead with goalkeeper Olivia McDaniel having the busiest half of her campaign.
The adrenaline ran out and momentum could only carry the tired bodies so far in the Asian Cup this time, but the team exits knowing there are bigger and better things to come.
“This is probably the best experience in my coaching career. We create history almost every time we step on the field, there’s nothing more you can ask for. The bar and expectations for the country have been raised, and now everyone has to come on board. We must now prepare for the World Cup and ensure we do everything we can as a country to give these players a maximum possible chance to perform at that stage,” Stajcic said at the end of the team’s campaign.
Before the semifinal, Bolden told the cameras on the ground that she hoped those who watched this team play would continue to remember them. “Be it Chandler, Olivia, Hali or anyone else. I hope that someone stands out to them. I hope we can create a lasting impression in the minds of coaches, fans, peers and everyone watching,” she had said. It is safe to say the world can’t wait for what the Malditas have in store for us next.