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Saintfiet targets mighty upset of Iraqis


‘I like difficult challenges. As a coach in my previous job, we had great results against big nations.’


New Philippine men’s national football team head coach Tom Saintfiet isn’t awed by the prospects of going up against Iraq for his first game.

The 50-year-old Belgian mentor told DAILY TRIBUNE at the sidelines of the press conference of the Philippine Football Federation last Monday that he looks forward to challenge one of Asia’s heavyweights in the second round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

The Lions of Mesopotamia recently made an impact in the AFC Asian Cup last January after pulling off a 2-1 win over Japan in the group stages thanks to a brace from Aymen Hussein Ghadhban Al Mafreajy in the fifth and 45th minutes.

While the Iraqis suffered a 3-2 loss to Jordan in the Round of 16 of the Asian Cup, they are still seen as favorites to top Group F in the World Cup qualifiers and advance to the third round, which also includes the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.

The Philippines and Iraq will face on 21 March (22 March in Manila) at the Basra International Stadium in Iraq before facing each other again on 26 March at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.

“I like difficult challenges. As a coach in my previous job, we had great results against big nations. Iraq is a tough team, No. 59 in the world and they might have had a disappointing Asian Cup but they are the strongest team in the group,” Saintfiet said.

“They will play for victory and it will be very good if we can steal some points.”

Saintfiet has been known to make the best out of the limited resources he has, giving him a reputation as a “miracle worker” in the countries he coached, especially in Africa.

His biggest feat as a head coach was when he called the shots for Gambia from 2018 to 2024 where he propelled the nation to the quarterfinal of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, its highest finish so far.

Saintfiet assures the fans despite the limited training time they have, they will be going into those matches with confidence as they try to force a draw or, hopefully, a win.

The Philippines currently holds a 0-1-1 win-draw-loss record and an upset could boost its chances of a top-two finish to advance to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers.

This also ensures that the men’s national football team will get an outright berth for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia.

“We will have limited time to prepare the guys but I’m looking forward to it. These are the games that I want to play,” Saintfiet said.

We have nothing to lose against them so I’m really looking forward to that match.”

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