Milestone: Philippine Women’s Football Team at the World Cup 2023

It may be hard to believe, but it’s happening: in my lifetime, the Philippines is represented in the World Cup.

The Philippines had never qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. But in 2023, the country has made history.

As I write this piece, Switzerland defeated the Philippine Filipinas in Dunedin, New Zealand, 2-0, on Ramona Bachmann’s first-half penalty and a close-range effort from Seraina Piubel.

By its semifinal finish at the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in India, the Filipinas punched their ticket to the 2023 World Cup in Australia/New Zealand.

Their entry to the World Cup is nothing short of amazing. The team isn’t considered a powerhouse even in Southeast Asia, with only a third-place finish to show in Bangkok in 1985 and only repeated in the 2021 edition in Vietnam.

The team was only formally organized in 1980, and its roster in Bangkok Southeast Asian Games finished third only because only three teams participated in women’s football’s debut as part of the biennial event. The team lost both of its matches against Singapore and Thailand.

The Philippine women’s football teams have suffered humiliating defeats in many of their international matches. Since its international debut in 1981, the team lost its first eight matches, including 7-0 and 8-0 shutout losses against Haiti and India before finally registering a win against Hong Kong in 1983. That victory was followed by a string of winless games from 1985 until 1999, with only draws against Kazakhstan and Malaysia interrupting the losing skid. That winless streak included a 16-0 loss against China and a 14-1 loss against North Korea in 1997.

Just before the new millennium, the Philippine women’s national team saw itself stepping outside the jaws of defeat. Long gone were the matches that a hapless Philippine team outscored by double digits, and they have started to turn the tables against their long-time tormentors in both FIFA friendlies and other sanctioned tournaments such as AFF Women’s Championships, Southeast Asian Games, and Olympic Qualifiers.

In the 2010s marked as a renaissance of Philippine football, as the Azkals concluded a relatively successful campaign in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup in Vietnam under the tutelage of Simon Mcmenemy. During this time, talents from the country’s massive Filipino diaspora were actively tapped and called to represent the national team.

While the Azkals awakened the Filipino love for football, emerging from the shadows of a basketball-crazed nation, it has yet to match the achievements of the Filipinas.

Recent strides have propelled the team to a more respectable finish in high-profile tournaments. The women’s national team, coached by Australian Alen Stacjic, finally found its championship form, winning the 2022 AFF Women’s Championship. Midfielder Bolden scored seven goals in the tournament that saw the Philippines defeating defending champions Vietnam and Thailand in the finals, both in shutout fashion in front of adoring fans in Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Former Philippine football team members Marlon Maro and Leticia Bautista helped steer the team towards respectability before handing the reins in 2021 to Stacjic, who previously coached the Australian women’s national team. In a way, he transitioned from coaching the Matildas to coaching the Malditas. This moniker represented the bold nature and inner fight among Filipina footballers despite being outsized and less experienced. The nickname has since been replaced by the demonym for female people of the Philipines.

Boosting its football exposure, the Philippines was invited in February to Pinatar Cup, an international women’s football tournament held in San Pedro del Pinatar, Spain. Despite dropping all its matches against Wales, Scotland, and Iceland, it was a much-needed tuneup tournament leading to the 2023 World Cup.

Meanwhile, their podium finish in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup was also helped by the luck of the draw. The Filipinas had to go through a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals, outscoring Chinese Taipei, 4-3, after a 1-1 deadlock after extra time. On the other group, an early clash between Australia and South Korea meant only one would proceed to the semis, allowing the Philippines a precious slot that automatically qualified them for the World Cup.

At 46th, the Philippines has achieved its highest-ever FIFA ranking, zooming in from its lowly 133rd position in 2011.

Despite a 2-0 loss to the more experienced Swiss team, the squad created history, largely thanks to a global talent pipeline that has tapped into the skills of the country’s massive Filipino diaspora.

More than half of the team comprises Filipina-Americans, notably California native Sarina Bolden, whose penalty kick secured the island nation’s place in the World Cup. Other top goal-scoring members of the team are Filipino-Australian Angela Beard, Filipino-Mexican Quinley Quezada, and team captain Tahnai Annis.

While not expected to figure prominently in the tournament, the Philippine Filipinas’ entry in the World Cup is already considered a victory, especially when you learn its turnaround from losing streaks in the past and upsets against favored rivals.

In a basketball-crazy country — by the way, the Philippines is hosting the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup with Japan and Indonesia in August —  having a team getting represented on the world stage of the sport, considered “the beautiful game,” should earn the Philippine women’s national team a greater degree of respect and admiration on the world stage.

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