HONG KONG (Reuters) - In the Philippines, where basketball monopolizes the airwaves and ageing boxer Manny Pacquiao is still king, a small piece of football history could be made on Tuesday evening.
At the rundown Rizal Memorial Stadium in the Malate district of Manila, Thomas Dooley will lead the Philippines into their biggest ever game when they take on Tajikistan in the final round of qualifying for next year’s Asian Cup finals.
A draw will be enough to take the Azkals - ‘Street Dogs’ in Tagalog - to January’s finals in the United Arab Emirates and seal the nation’s first-ever qualification in the 62-year history of the continental championship.
“Obviously it’s a very important game for us,” said Dooley, the former United States international defender now in his fifth year as Philippines head coach.
“We never expected it would come back to the last day. I hoped we could have closed it down a little bit earlier, but that happens sometimes.
“We have a home game and we cannot afford to lose, so we have to get a point or a win and then we qualify.
“I’m trying to get the pressure away from the players and I’m just trying to get them focused on writing history for the Philippines.”
Qualification for the Asian Cup finals, which have been expanded from 16 to 24 teams for next year’s edition, would give the game a boost in a country where the sporting landscape is overwhelmingly dominated by basketball.
The Philippines, however, occupies a unique position within the fabric of football in Asia.
The country played in the first international fixture on Asian soil when they won the opening game of the 1913 Far Eastern Games against China.
In an even less likely claim to footballing fame, former Philippines international Paulinho Alcantara was Barcelona’s all-time leading goalscorer until Lionel Messi surpassed his tally almost four years ago.
Manila was also the birthplace of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954 but, despite those deep connections, the Philippines has little track record of which to speak.
The nation has never qualified for the continental championship since its inception in 1956 and no club from the country has ever qualified for the group stages of the elite Asian Champions League.
Over the last decade, however, there have been some encouraging signs as officials have tapped into the country’s vast diaspora to enhance hopes of turning the Philippines into a regional force.
Brothers Phil and James Younghusband, both former trainees at Chelsea, were among the first and they were soon followed by goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, currently first choice goalkeeper with Cardiff City in the second tier of English football.
In 2010, they, and others, helped the Philippines reach the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup - a regional tournament played amongst South East Asian nations - and since then expectations have grown.
There have been ups and downs along the way, with the Philippines narrowly missing out on a place at the 2015 Asian Cup finals when they were defeated in the final of the AFC Challenge Cup by Palestine.
Now, though, they stand again on the verge of qualification and a draw against the Central Asians will be enough to send them to the United Arab Emirates next January.
Dooley is confident securing a place at the finals can be a springboard to even greater achievements.
“You have players in Germany playing in the first division who might have a chance to play for Sweden or Denmark instead of playing for the Philippines because they’re qualifying for the European championships or the World Cup,” he added.
“They want to be there. What do we have to offer? A beautiful country and playing for your country, but we need more.
“But if we get to the Asian Cup and we are in the top 100 in the world and are more visible and people are talking about the Philippines and what’s going on, then when those players are making those decisions they will say: I want to go.
“We have lined up players already that would like to come and they are waiting. Waiting for what? Qualifying for the Asian Cup is very interesting for them.”That could be the spark and it will spread in all directions. The potential is there, we just need to have the plan.”
Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Nick Mulvenney