GROUP A matches for the joint 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, including those of the Philippine Azkals, are set to be relocated to the UAE, after Suzhou, China, at the last minute decided to beg off from hosting the event. — AFC WEBSITE

By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

THE Philippine national men’s football team’s bid in the joint 2022 International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) World Cup and the 2023 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup Qualifiers hit a speed bump after organizers at the last minute announced a change in venue.

Originally set to take place in Suzhou, China, beginning June 3, the qualifiers are now to be played in the United Arab Emirates, following Chinese officials’ decision to cancel their hosting over coronavirus concerns.

The development left the Philippine Azkals, who are in Doha, Qatar, for their training in the lead-up, to cancel their travel plans and wait for further development.

The team was supposed to take a chartered flight from its training base in Doha to Shanghai on Monday until the announcement was made.

The Philippine Football Federation admitted that the change of venue hit its financials hard as it needed to cancel the chartered flight at the last minute and adjust other expenses.

But it remains committed to adhering to the thrust to have a safe and successful holding of the competition.

For Azkals manager Dan Palami, their preparation continues despite the latest challenge thrown their way.

They continue to monitor each member of their delegation for the coronavirus, regularly having their tests, the most recent prior to their supposed departure for China, which all came out negative.

Mr. Palami said “the team will explore every possibility to further strengthen the squad that we have now.” The Azkals have brought to Doha some 25 players as part of the player pool for the qualifiers, led by veteran Stephan Schrock, who was named captain.

Also part of the pool are Patrick Reichelt, Martin Steuble, Jarvey Gayoso, Mark Hartmann, Angel Guirado, Mike Ott, Luke Woodland, Kenshiro Daniels and Alvaro Silva.

The team, however, was also hit by player pullouts, notably top goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who had to undergo surgery.

The Philippines is currently at third place in Group A of the qualifiers with seven points from a 2-1-2 record, behind Syria (5-0-0) with 15 points, and China (2-1-1) with seven.

Maldives (2-0-3) and Guam (0-0-5) round out the group.

The Azkals last played in the qualifiers in November 2019, losing to Syria (1-0) in Dubai.

Scheduled qualifying matches of the team in 2020 failed to push through because of the pandemic.

The Philippine men’s football team is set to face China on June 7, Guam (June 11) and Maldives (June 15) in UAE.

All the Azkals matches in the qualifiers at the Sharjah Stadium can be seen on One Sports and One Sports+.