Philippines on the brink of football history
At the rundown Rizal Memorial Stadium in the Malate district of Manila, Thomas Dooley will lead the Philippines into their biggest football game when they take on Tajikistan in their final qualifier for next year's Asian Cup.
A draw tonight 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 appearance in the 62-year-old continental championship.
"We never expected it would come back to the last day," said Dooley, the former US international defender now in his fifth year as the Philippines' head coach. "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."
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 have never qualified for the continental championship since its inception in 1956 and no club from the country have 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 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 and since then expectations have grown.
Now, though, they stand again on the verge of qualification for the continental showpiece.
They began their qualifying campaign with a 4-1 win over Nepal last March and a 4-3 victory at Tajikistan three months later.
Three consecutive draws with Yemen (2-2 and 1-1) and Nepal (0-0) followed, keeping them at the top of Group F.
A draw against Tajikistan tonight will be enough to send the Philippines to the United Arab Emirates next January.
Yemen, too, will go through if they beat Nepal in Group F's other game. - REUTERS