Philippines’ duo optimistic ahead of SEA Games

The SEA Games are coming soon and the Philippines football team has some ambitious targets.

It’s a busy couple of months coming up for one of Southeast Asia’s sleeping giants with the Philippines aiming for dual success in next week’s AFC U23 Championship qualifiers and then the main event in the SEA Games that kicks off in the middle of next month.

The squad has been in Japan preparing for those tournaments this week and FOX Sports Asia caught up with two of the side’s most important players in captain, Ian Clarino and forward Enzo Cheng.

FSA: Firstly, thanks for speaking with FOX Sports Asia – what was your reaction when you saw the recent draw for the SEA Games that placed you in a very tough group with Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia? They appear to be the three strongest nations at the tournament on paper, no?

ENZO CHENG: Definitely on paper it’s the harder side of the draw but ultimately if you want to win the gold medal at the SEA Games you’ve got to beat them all so it doesn’t matter whether we’re in this group or the other one.

FSA: How important is this tournament for the country, especially since it’s been a long time (1991) since the team last reached the semis – do you get a sense of how important this is for the Philippines?

EC: I think so, of all the competitions that we’re involved in I think the Filipino people regard this as the biggest one.

FSA: The coach has said that the semis must be the target – does the playing group share that ambition and is it possible?

EC: Everyone is definitely confident that we can get good results against the teams in our group and make it through to the semis.

FSA: For you Enzo the job is clear and that’s to score the goals that the team needs to progress but how do you go about trying to break down some of the biggest teams in the region?

EC: First of all you have to take your chances and the way that we play we know that we’ll likely only have a few so we have to really put those away.

Our goal is to make it past the first round and get into the semis and we’re not going to do that by just sitting back so it’s up to me and Harvey, the other striker, to seal the deal.

FSA: Ian, for you, the job is just as hard in terms of having to stop these strong nations from scoring in your role in central defence – when you saw the draw what was your initial reaction to being placed in with some of these bigger nations?

IAN CLARINO: First of all, I knew it was the ‘group of death’ because Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are very hard and we know these three teams are very good.

Of course, we know it’s tough but we’re just as focused on ourselves and how we can improve and let’s see if our preparation is good enough to see that progress come through.

FSA: You were both involved in the last edition of the SEA Games – what’s the difference this time around?

IC: I think this time around we’re going to be more focused on our defensive work and then look to counter-attack and we’ve changed our formation now to a 5-3-2 so that we’ll be more compact in defence and then when we get the ball we can come out fast.

FSA: What’s been the impact of the new professional league in the Philippines – has that been a real positive for all players?

IC: It’s very good that we have this first professional league and it gives a good experience for many young players so that when we come to the national team then our skills and performances can also improve.

FSA: How has football grown or progressed since you were playing as children – do you see a real development of the sport over the past decade or so?

EC: Basketball is still definitely the number one sport in the Philippines but football is growing and you can see that by its presence on TV and in social media and more and more kids are playing it.

IC: I agree with Enzo; football in the Philippines is really growing and now we have clubs that are making youth teams, especially those like Kaya and Meralco, and every time I see the children I can see that their skills are getting better because the training is more effective.

FSA: Do you see a day when football can overtake basketball in terms of popularity – should that be the aim or it doesn’t really matter?

IC: I think the aim should be to co-exist but the problem is that with basketball, people just play in the street with some wood to make a ring and it’s hard to do that with football and every time I walk around even on a highway or somewhere people are playing basketball.

FSA: Before the SEA Games though you have the AFC U23 Championship qualifiers coming up next week where you’ll again face some very strong nations, including Japan and China, so what are the hopes and expectations for that tournament?

EC: Of course, the number one aim is to get good results and we know that coming into it that we’re the underdogs but also we know that anything can happen in football so we definitely have a chance of progressing.

IC: A group with Japan and China means we have some of the toughest opponents in Asia so we are just going to play our style, the defensive style and when we get the ball we will counter so we need to work hard to get our goals and this is also the best opportunity for us to prepare for the SEA Games and it’s a privilege for us to be playing against some of the biggest teams in Asia.