Philippines U16 girls national team prepares for AFF tournament

ABS-CBN Sports on Apr 30, 2018 10:11 AM
 PH U16 girls national team prepares for AFF tournament
The Philippine U16 Girls Football team prepare for their AFF U16 Girls Championship campaign. (Photo courtesy of Manila Jockey Club)

Once again, Pinay football is set to take on the region's best. The Philippines' Born 2003 girls team is in Palembang, Indonesia for the Asean Football Federation U16 Girls Championship from May 1 to 13.

The Pinays are in a five-team round-robin group. After drawing a bye on May 1, the squad takes on Malaysia on May 3, Singapore on May 5, Vietnam on May 7, then Myanmar on May 9. The top two advance to the semis.

Coach Marielle Benitez's squad hopes to exceed the feat of last year's U16 team that finished second to Thailand in Laos.

The 2017 team was bolstered by six overseas born-and-bred Filipinas. This year's squad features Bella Hosking, a very capable Filipina-Brit centerback living in Thailand, and Isabel Mapanao, a towering, full-blooded Filipina raised in Switzerland. But the rest of the squad is completely home-grown, and culled from a vast pool of players from all over the nation.

Benitez and her assistants, Belay Fernando and Elyo Dillera, traipsed all over the country scouting for talent in the Philippine Football Federation's Festivals of Football, or scouting combines held in several provincial areas, including Tarlac, Davao, Iligan, Davao del Norte, San Carlos, and Metro Manila. The staff looked at around 700 players and have whittled the squad down to 22. Former women's national team mentor Buda Bautista will also be a consultant for the team. 

There are three girls from Dipolog, Sarah Tulabing, France Gayapa, and Bianca Sy. Compostela Valley has one player on the roster, Gean Templaza. Baguio is represented by Lorjane Aludos, a veteran of last year's campaign, Kylie Panagan, and Eunique Bocalan.

San Carlos in Negros Occidental has one player in Gen-gen Umbao while Bacolod's offering is the gifted midfielder MJ Villacin. Gretel Tan is the lone player from Davao City.

The balance of the team are from the Metro Manila area, like DLSZ's terrific Maria Lazo and Miriam College's Jazzy Borra, who the coaches remark was nothing remarkable when she tried out last year but has blossomed into an international-caliber player since then.

This competition was originally slated for June, but the AFF moved it up a month early. That compressed the training schedule greatly, and the staff needed to scramble to sew up the odds and ends of the campaign.

The girls have been playing friendlies against several boys teams from Kaya, Football Funatics, Ceres Youth, and Green Archers United to toughen them up for the rigors of international play. While they understandably have had difficulty against male teams, they have played them  tough every time.

Last Thursday night they also took on a mixed team of DLSU high school and older college girls in a friendly game and impressed many onlookers.

The bulk of the squad's training sessions since the second week of April took place in the PFF Artificial Turf Pitch in the San Lazaro Leisure Park in Carmona, Cavite.

“It's wonderful,” said coach Belay Fernando of the ground.

“It's much better to train on than grass because of the consistency,” she added.

Benitez had other reasons to praise the facility.

“Since you are isolated, you can focus, and there are less distractions for the players.”

But Benitez also noted that SLLP is still not too far away, usually an hour from Makati or even less. In some of the friendly matches the parents of the Manila-based girls were able to come down to watch.

“The pitch is a good way to introduce the kind of play of our national team to new players,” said Benitez, herself a former women's national team standout.

“It sets the standard for what a proper training ground should be.”

Benitez also notices that even on oppressively hot summer days, a strong breeze blows from the East, cooling down the players.

She also says the girls make use of the nearby locker rooms to shower after training.

The PFF Artificial Turf Pitch in Carmona measures 105 meters long and 68 meters wide, the preferred dimensions for elite play. The surface has passed the FIFA Quality Pro standard, formerly known as FIFA 2 star. - (RELEASE)

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