Scott Cooper wants Azkals to aim higher once football returns

The Azkals held China to a scoreless draw during a World Cup and Asian Cup qualifier in October. VCG/Getty Images

When the coronavirus pandemic escalated in March the Philippines national team was just starting to hit its stride.

Qualification for the next Asian Cup -- along with the 2022 FIFA World Cup -- had begun and the Philippines were tied for second with China in their group at seven points.

Previously regarded as the minnows of Southeast Asia, the Azkals have improved dramatically over the past decade and played in the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in January.

Azkals coach Scott Cooper said the stoppage has definitely halted the team's momentum after qualifying wins against Guam and Maldives, a scoreless draw against China, and a tough 1-0 loss to group leaders Syria.

"We have three games that were meant to be completed by June that were at home to Guam and Maldives, both of whom we've already beaten, and away to China -- so that match was going to be pivotal," Cooper told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "... momentum was building and it's taken a long period of time but the team now have the philosophy and culture that I want."

2020 was initially shaping up to be a huge year for the Philippines, with the AFF Suzuki Cup still scheduled to start in November. Reaching the semifinals remains their best achievement at the regional competition and Cooper believes that nothing less than reaching the final will suffice.

"Obviously, we've been to the Asian Cup and we have to tip our hat to [former coach Thomas] Dooley for getting the team there, and then it was overall a poor showing. To go one better there would be to get through the group like Thailand and Vietnam did [in 2019].

"Then, of course, we want to get to the next phase of World Cup qualifying and we're going to give it our best shot."

For Azkals full-back Daisuke Sato, the next step for the Philippines is to simply win a competition. Since the rise of Philippine football in 2010 the Azkals have never won a major trophy -- the closest the Filipinos came to lifting silverware was a 1-0 loss to Palestine at the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup Final.

"We need to win some tournaments. I want to win some tournaments like the Suzuki Cup," Sato told Neil Etheridge during an Instagram Live interview. "This will change everything in the country. Like more help from the government, more attention to the national team."

Etheridge -- who plays for EFL Championship club Cardiff City -- agreed with the Suzuki Cup as a realistic short-term target for the Philippines.

"The next step is to reach the Final, but the next step is to win it and create real movement within South East Asia. And then obviously, hopefully, get into another Asian Cup and get outside that group," Etheridge said.

For all their recent achievements, the Azkals were previously hampered by conflict within the camp. Dooley had a number of fights with key players and even released star playmaker Stephan Schrock from the team.

Nonetheless, established veterans like Schrock and Martin Steuble have now praised the rejuvenated mood under Cooper.

"Fortunately, I was already here for a couple of years, initially as an assistant coach, and observed the environment and culture," said Cooper. "... We're onto a good thing because the attitude and culture right now is as strong as I've ever seen and [team manager] Dan Palami tells me is the strongest he's ever seen too.

Regional rivals, however, have criticized the Philippines and say they owe their rise to the use of foreign-born players. In the Azkals' defence, their stalwarts all have Filipino heritage, as compared to teams like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, who have looked to naturalized players through the years.

For Cooper, who coached at the club level in Thailand and Indonesia, identifying overseas players who are eligible will always be part of their talent pool. He also said it is equally important to produce talent at home.

"It's critical to be looking at both ends," added Cooper, who also doubles up as the Philippine Football Federation's technical director.

Cooper -- along with senior Azkals team management -- leads the national team's development program, which aims to nurture young promising players with Filipino heritage. He cited players like Amani Aguinaldo, Patrick Deyto and Jovin Bedic as examples of homegrown talent from a population pool of more than 100 million people.

"There are [also] over a hundred players overseas with Filipino lineage who qualify, but we need to narrow that down to those who actually have the attitude and a burning desire to represent the Philippines.

ESPN Philippines reporter Paolo del Rosario contributed to this report.