Since it broke into the semifinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup last February—which resulted in its inclusion in one of the sport’s biggest stages, the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023—the Philippine women’s national football team has been raising the bar ever higher.
Only last May, the Filipinas, as the team is now called, bagged a first-ever podium finish (bronze medal) for the country in the 31st Southeast Asian Games. And then, last July 17, it made history by clinching the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Women’s Championship crown.
The Filipinas did it by beating four-time AFF Women’s Championship titleholder Thailand in the finals, 3-0, right after a stunning 4-0 win against regional giant (32nd in the world) and reigning champion Vietnam in the semifinal round two days earlier.
Not bad for a team that is currently 53rd in the FIFA Women’s Ranking (from 64th last January).
Heart and spirit
The secret, according to Filipinas coach Alen Stajcic, is not only the overwhelming support of the home crowd—a record 8,257 spectators witnessed the historic feat at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila—but also the passion that the team displayed throughout the 90-minute match and its pride in representing the Philippine flag.
“This team has so much heart, so much spirit, and determination,” the 48-year-old Australian said during a recent media day held at Crimson Hotel in Alabang. He added that the Filipinas played 10 matches in 25 days across two continents (two friendlies in Europe before playing the gruelling eight AFF matches in Manila).
The Filipinas had been dominant in this tournament, going 4 wins, 0 draw, and 1 loss in the Group stage after beating Australia, 1-0; Singapore, 7-0; Malaysia, 4-0; and Indonesia, 4-1. The only loss came during the last match, when it bowed to Thailand, 0-1.
Coach Stajcic explained that the team adjusted and lines were rotated. “All our set pieces—we spent hours and hours, and on a night like [July 17], it paid off,” he said.
Star striker Sarina Bolden, 26, who was recruited in 2017, was the top scorer of the AFF Women’s Championship, with eight total goals, including the third goal (89th minute from a corner kick) that clinched the championship.
The 5-foot-8 Bolden is well-remembered as the heroine of the February 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup held in Pune, India. The former Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles) standout delivered the game-winning goal in the penalty shootout during the quarterfinal duel of the Filipinas (then known as the Malditas) with Chinese Taipei following a 1-1 draw in regulation.
Despite bowing to South Korea in the succeeding semifinal match, the team’s win against Chinese Taipei enabled the Philippines to book a ticket to the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 to be hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
Eclectic mix of talents
Joining Bolden in the history-making Filipinas are team captain Tahnai Annis, co-captain Hali Long, goalkeepers Olivia McDaniel and Inna Palacios, striker Quinley Quezada, centerback Dominique Randle, midfielder Camille Rodriguez, as well as new midfielder recruits Sara Eggesvik, Jaclyn Sawicki, Kaya Hawkinson, defenders Maya Alcantara and Chantelle Maniti, and centerback Jessika Cowart.
In earlier interviews, Stajcic said his coaching and conditioning staff had to work on an eclectic mix of talents in such a short period and amid various pandemic restrictions. A number of the team members were pro squad players who flew in from Sweden, Japan, Spain and Cyprus, and the rest were aligned with schools and college teams. A few were discovered in a recruitment camp that was held in California (the Philippines was on pandemic lockdown at the time).
During the awarding ceremony on victory night, Stajcic encouraged young boys and girls to aspire to be like this champion lineup: “Anyone can play—tall or short, it doesn’t matter what color you are, or what religion you have. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are. That’s why it’s the world game and it’s spread in the Philippines tonight.”
Indeed, the bar of performance has again been raised, and interestingly, the winning moves are being made by women.
Weightlifter and Olympic gold-medalist Hidilyn Diaz and now the members of the women’s national football team have shown that the Philippines can attain sustainable success in some of the biggest sporting events in the world.
For Stajcic, who has been coaching for 20 years, it’s all about developing mental toughness and the will to sacrifice “normal” life for months, putting family, friends, school or work on hold for that singular goal.