The Unofficial Football World Championships heads into new territory this week, as current champions North Korea take the UFWC title to Nepal for the AFC Challenge Cup tournament. The tournament begins on Thursday, and the opening UFWC title match sees North Korea play the Philippines on Friday, 9 March. With only two of the tournament’s participating nations having previously competed in the UFWC, other unfamiliar challengers lie in wait.
The AFC Challenge Cup will be contested by eight nations, and will begin with a group stage. Group A consists of hosts Nepal, plus Turkmenistan, the Maldives and Palestine. The four sides in Group B are North Korea, Tajikistan, the Philippines and India. Group B certainly looks the toughest of the two. North Korea are the current AFC Challenge Cup champions (they beat Turkmenistan on penalties to win in 2010), and Tajikistan and India have also won the tournament since it was launched in 2006.
The Challenge Cup is supposedly for emerging football nations, as designated by the AFC. However, several of the nations involved are actually designated as ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ rather than ’emerging’, under the AFC’s three-level classification system. North Korea are ‘developed’, Tajikistan and India are ‘developing’, while the Philippines are ’emerging’.
So what do we know about initial UFWC challengers the Philippines? Although they’ve been playing international football since 1913, the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup is the first major competition they’ve ever qualified for. (They did participate in the 2006 tournament, but qualification wasn’t required.) FIFA rank the Philippines 156th in the world, 50 places behind North Korea. They’ve won only four of the 14 games they’ve played over the last 12 months, but they have demonstrated that they can score goals – they beat tournament hosts Nepal 4-0 in October, and beat Sri Lanka by the same scoreline in July.
Known as the Azkals (stray dogs), the Philippines are managed by German Michael Weiss, who learnt his trade via internships at clubs including Real Madrid and Arsenal, and has previously coached in Japan, China and Rwanda. Most of his squad play in the Philippines’ semi-professional United Football League, with a only few exceptions.
Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge was born in Enfield in England, and is signed to Premier League club Fulham, although he has yet to make a first team appearance. Paul Mulders is a midfielder at Den Haag in the Netherlands, and defender Dennis Cagara is at FSV Frankfurt in Bundesliga 2.
The team’s captain is midfielder James Younghusband, who was born in Ashford, England, and plays for Loyola Meralco Sparks in the Philippines league. His brother, Phil Younghusband, is a striker for the Azkals and Loyola. German-born striker Denis Wolf of FC Magdeburg, who has played and scored in recent Azkals games, isn’t eligible for the AFC Challenge Cup due to a passport issue.
Certainly the Philippines has an advantage over North Korea when it comes to internet presence – it seems that almost every member of the Azkals’ squad has a Twitter account, including Neil Etheridge, Paul Mulders, James Younghusband and Phil Younghusband.
If North Korea retain the UFWC title, the next title match will see them once again face Tajikistan. However, if the Philippines manage to defeat North Korea and become Unofficial Football World Champions, they will defend their title against the fourth side in Group B, India.
India, the Blue Tigers, are ranked 154th in the world by FIFA. Like the Philippines, India have never played in a UFWC title match. The nation has been playing international football since the 1940s, and was invited to participate at the 1950 World Cup, but refused because they weren’t allowed to play barefoot. They’ve never qualified for a World Cup since putting on boots, but they did win the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008.
Coached by Savio Medeira, the Blue Tigers squad is entirely made up of India-based players. The key player is probably Sunil Chhetri, the 27-year-old Mohun Bagan striker, who has scored 33 goals in 55 appearances for his country. Most of his teammates are much less experienced, although defenders Gouramangi Singh and Syed Rahim Nabi have 53 caps and 44 caps respectively. Goalscoring midfielder Clifford Miranda misses this tournament through injury, as does defender Arnab Mondal.
Recent results have been erratic. India lost 5-1 to Oman and 3-0 to Azerbaijan in February, but beat the Maldives 3-1, Sri Lanka 3-0, Afghanistan 4-0 and Bhutan 5-0 in December to claim the South Asian Football Federation Cup.
Can the Philippines or India become Unofficial Football World Champions? Will Tajikistan take the title at their fourth attempt? Will Nepal, Turkmenistan, the Maldives or Palestine get the chance to challenge for the UFWC title in the knock-out stages? Or can North Korea remain unbeaten and retain the title throughout the tournament? The Group B and knock-out fixtures are as follows:
9 March 2012 North Korea vs Philippines
9 March 2012 India vs Tajikistan
11 March 2012 Tajikistan vs North Korea
11 March 2012 Philippines vs India
13 March 2012 North Korea vs India
13 March 2012 Tajikistan vs Philippines
16 March 2012 Semi finals
19 March 2012 Third place play-off and final
As per usual, we’ll be covering all the UFWC title matches that are played during the tournament (there could be as many as five over the next couple of weeks). You’ll find match previews and reports here, plus updates on our Twitter feed (@UFWC_Football).