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South Korea warn against LVG, AVB rumours

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Winning Suzuki Cup would rekindle Philippines' love affair with football

The Azkals started the year in positive fashion only to end it in disappointment.

A year that held so much promise ended in disappointment as the Philippines crashed out of contention in 2018 AFC World Cup qualifying.

After starting the campaign with two solid wins, the Azkals ended 2015 with consecutive defeats, culminating in an unfortunate 1-0 loss to bottom side, Yemen, in Manila.

With a crucial 2016 awaiting Philippines' football, here are five wishes for the New Year.

1. Win the 2016 Suzuki Cup on home soil

After three consecutive semifinal finishes, it is high time that the Azkals made that great leap forward to win the grandest prize in Southeast Asian Football.

For a team who have wallowed in mediocrity for too long, a run of three straight appearances in the knockout stages of the AFF Suzuki Cup is a considerable achievement. However, they should now no longer be content with just getting out of the group phase.

"Another semifinal finish, after three straight semifinal appearances, is no longer as gratifying," said UFL President Randy Roxas. "We need to do better than that, especially as hosts."

Until recently, Philippines have been ASEAN's top ranked team. While undoubtedly a big accomplishment, it is a time for a Suzuki Cup win to justify the lofty billing.

2016 presents the Philippines with a chance to win the Suzuki Cup on home soil.

2. Qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup

Truth be told, reaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup was always going to be a step too far, especially after being drawn against such tough opposition in Group H.

The 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, which will now see 24 nations take part instead of 16, is a more realistic target.

The Philippines came agonisingly close to participating in the 2015 Asian Cup, denied by a solitary goal in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup final.

With Russia 2018 out of the equation, all efforts must be focused on getting maximum points against Uzbekistan and North Korea to qualify for the next round.

"After the World Cup, the Asian Cup is the next best thing," said PFF General Secretary Ed Gastanes.

3. UFL teams do well in the AFC Cup

In 2016, the Philippines will field two teams in the group stages of the AFC Cup for the very first time -- a massive flip for the nation's club football.

It is hoped that league champions Ceres La Salle and Cup winners Kaya FC will write more history as the first teams to progress out of the group stages in the second tier Asian competition.

"It is important because it helps gauge how we've progressed in our mission to improve and professionalise club football in our country, " UFL President Roxas said.

Given that Global FC did a good job last season with a severely undermanned squad, Ceres and Kaya are determined to give a good account of themselves with a spot in the knockout stages as the target.

Ceres are in Group E with Tampines Rovers (Singapore), Selangor (Malaysia) and Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi (Bangladesh),  while Kaya find themselves in Group F alongside Kitchee (Hong Kong), Balestier Khalsa (Singapore) and New Radiant (Maldives).

Global did well in the regional tournaments this year as well as the Singapore Cup. (Photo credit: S.League)

4. Prepare for National League in 2017

Twenty years after the establishment of the first Philippine National League (P-League), it is all systems go ahead of the launch of new nationwide competition, comprising clubs from all over the country.

According to PFF boss Gastanes, the proposed Philippine National League is on schedule to start in the first quarter of 2017.

"Our research has shown that there's a groundswell of support for the formation of the national league," he said.

"There is still a lot of work to be done, including qualifying the clubs for the national league, but all pistons are pumping."

This is a crucial step forward in the development of the sport across the more than 2,000 inhabited islands around the country.

Big year ahead for the Azkals with their eyes on the Suzuki Cup.

5. Recapture a national love for football

Just a few years ago, Philippines' football was on a high. Stadiums were packed, with the Azkals the hottest ticket in town.

This love affair with football reached its peak with a packed Rizal Memorial Stadium for the game against Sri Lanka in 2011, culminating in a visit by David Beckham's LA Galaxy a few months later.

The heady euphoria has died down significantly, with the UFL and the Azkals struggling to attract fans. Certainly, the recent home defeat to Yemen and other disappointing performances didn't help.

"We do need that 2010 euphoria. It will be good for the sport and will set the stage for the launch of the National League in 2017," Gastanes said.

A string of good results from national and club teams in 2016 will be important to rekindle Filipinos' love affair with the sport, preferably taking interest back to the 2010 Suzuki Cup levels.

Everyone loves a winner so if the Azkals can lift the Suzuki Cup on home soil in December, it will be a massive boost for the game.

Manila-based Ryan Fenix is football columnist for Sports5 Philippines and analyst for InterAksyon.com. He is also a FIFA Ballon d'Or juror.

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