Philippine football embarks on next chapter with new coach Tom Saintfiet and fresh identity

Having only recently led Gambia at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, Tom Saintfiet has now taken up a new role as head coach of Philippines. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

A new man in charge for Philippines. And a move away from their previous underdog identity.

The Philippine Football Federation has once again made a coaching change for its senior men's team, appointing former Gambia coach Tom Saintfiet as the new man in charge in place of Michael Weiss.

The PFF, led by president John Gutierrez and recently-appointed director for national teams Freddy Gonzalez, introduced Saintfiet on Monday morning in a news conference, less than a month before the team face Iraq on Mar. 22 in their next outing in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

It also comes barely eight months after the federation announced the return of Weiss as Azkals coach, following a first spell at the helm between 2011 to 2014.

In Weiss' second tenure, Philippines lost to Vietnam and drew with Indonesia in two home games in the November window of the World Cup qualifiers.

Sources have told ESPN that Weiss is being considered for the under-19 team.

Speculation on Saintfiet's appointment grew after he was spotted Sunday watching the UAAP men's football games at the UP Diliman football field.

He brings a wealth of coaching experience, having coached Namibia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Yemen, Malawi, Togo, Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago, Malta and, most recently, Gambia at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations.

He has also managed professional clubs in the Netherlands, Germany, Jordan and Tanzania.

"I was in need of an ambitious task -- a project," said the Belgian, when explaining why he accepted the appointment.

"My experience in national team football is that it's not always the best players who win games. It's personality, commitment. Playing for your country is the highest you can achieve."

Saintfiet admitted that the national team isn't in a favorable position in the qualifiers after coming away with just a point in the last window, but he is eager to take on the challenge.

"In the short term, we would like to create a team who believes still in that opportunity to be top two (in the group)," he said.

"We are two points behind Vietnam. We need to steal points from Iraq.

"I have to see which players are available. We spoke in the last months with many players. Players who have played already and some players who will hopefully make their debut against Iraq.

"If everyone is onboard and believes in this project, I'm sure we will be ready to compete with the best in Asia and we will be there in 2027 for the (AFC) Asian Cup."

Saintfiet was referencing the continent's premier tournament -- which will be next held in Saudi Arabia in January 2027 -- as the ongoing Asian qualifiers for the World Cup also double up as a pathway to reach the former.

A personnel change is not the only thing Philippine football has embarked on, with Gonzales revealing the federation is moving towards choosing a new moniker for the team.

This will mark the end the use of the previous 'Azkals' -- or street dogs -- nickname, which was initially fitting given their previous status as underdogs in the region and for the fighting spirit they displayed despite often having the odds against them.

"We feel that, while the Azkals name is great, it has served its purpose," Gonzalez added.

"We feel like we're going into the next step of Philippine football. That's something we're not currently thinking about, but will eventually come into play at some point, whether it's by us or by the fans."

In addition to the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, Saintfiet also has his eye on the regional AFF Championship, with the ambitious goal of leading Philippines to their first title, adding: "In the meantime, part and parallel, we are focused on the Mitsubishi Cup (AFF Championship).

"It means we are preparing players in Southeast Asia to be ready for the Mitsubishi Cup, and also looking forward to players in Europe who could be finished (with their club seasons).

"I'm here to win things. We want to win things. We want to win the Mitsubishi Cup. Maybe it's now, maybe it's in two years' time.

Gonzalez said Saintfiet will be in for the long haul as the PFF looks to build consistency and stability in its national team programs.

"One of the most important things for us with the national teams is for us to have consistency and stability," said Gonzalez. "That's something we've lacked in the past, from the coaching staff to the player pool.

"Coach Tom is gonna be here for a while. This is a long-term project. We have him contracted for quite a bit.

"(It's the) same thing with the pool of players. We intend to build a pool of not only overseas-based players but also local-based players that are gonna form the pool for the next number of years.

Gonzalez said the PFF received many applications for the position, but in the end they decided to go with Saintfiet.

"We were looking at the all the options, and we felt that Tom was the best option," Gonzalez said. "We struck (a) good rapport right away, and he has aligned with our goals."

In another development, the PFF also announced that ex-international Ed Sacapaño has been appointed goalkeeping coach within the national team setup.