They may not be able to bend it quite like David Beckham, but Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Philippines have made an instant impact in their first appearance at the Asian Cup.
Ranked a lowly 116th in the world, the Azkals (street dogs) bared their teeth against South Korea in Abu Dhabi this week, giving the favourites a real fright before eventually losing 1-0 — a far cry from the hammering many had predicted.
“It’s a different challenge,” Eriksson told AFP in an interview Thursday.
“The Philippines is unfortunately not a football country — basketball is more popular. But if this generation of players can do well at the Asian Cup, they can change that.”
Eriksson took charge of the Philippines last November on a short-term contract until the end of the Asian Cup.
And the Swede is relishing the slower pace after a glittering coaching career that included spells at Lazio, Manchester City and, most famously, five years in the England hot seat from 2001 to 2006.
“Here it’s much more quiet,” smiled the 70-year-old.
“If you travel around the world with David Beckham it’s total chaos everywhere you go.
“I was amazed how he could focus on the football,” added Eriksson, who was hounded by media and had his private life splashed across the tabloids during his time as England boss.
“None of my players have even played at an Asian Cup, but they’re professional, they fight — like England or Lazio or whoever it is.”
A team mostly cherry-picked from overseas, the players who started against South Korea all had at least one non-Filipino parent, sparking renewed debate in the country over ethnicity after Filipino-Australian model Catriona Gray was crowned Miss Universe last month.
– Old foes –
“I’m very proud of them,” insisted Eriksson, who steered the Philippines to the knockout stages of the southeast Asian championships in his first assignment.
“They stood up to a very good Korean team. I’m very curious to see if we can do it again tomorrow.”
Bustling forward Javier Patino could prove a thorn in China’s side on Friday in a match which sees Eriksson lock horns with his old foe Marcello Lippi.
But there will be more on the line than three points.
“I think I’ve met Lippi in Italy and China 20 times maybe,” said Eriksson, who spent four years in Chinese club football from 2013 to 2017.
“When I was at Sampdoria and Lazio, he had Inter (Milan), Juventus and Napoli — Italian Cup finals, so many games — and we are friends still.
“I will take my usual best with him,” added the Swede. “Whoever loses has to buy dinner and a very good red wine.”
Eriksson turned down jobs with Cameroon and Iraq to coach the Philippines but whatever the result against China and fellow Asian Cup first-timers Kyrgyzstan next week, he has no regrets.
“I like the people, I like the players,” he said. “We are more like a team today than we were a month ago.”
Asked about his future, Eriksson suggested whimsically he could end his career where it began as a player — at amateur side Torsby.
“I’ll always have my local team in Sweden — it’s a village team,” he said.
“But I don’t have any plans — and at my age in football, it’s better not to have plans.”