ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- Yeng Guiao had only one mission in mind when he agreed to coach Gilas Pilipinas six months ago: He wanted to bring the Philippines back to the world basketball stage.
When Gilas ended the Korean curse in 2013 to qualify for the World Cup in Spain, Guiao shed tears of joy live on national TV. He was extremely proud of the national team for beating Korea, which has long been a fierce nemesis of the Philippines, and for making such a historic breakthrough.
Nearly six years later, Gilas' World Cup-clinching victory became another emotional moment for Guiao. But this time, he was not in Manila for the post-game show. He was there in Astana being lifted by his overjoyed players on the court.
"World Cup means being world-class. Just getting there means we're at the level of our opponents who are the best in the world." Yeng Guiao
"We made it," Guiao said. "We had a difficult time, we passed by a narrow road to get here, but we still made it and that's what's important."
Even while celebrating with his players inside the Saryarka Velodrome, Guiao still could not believe the magnitude of what the team was able to accomplish.
"Maybe it will start to sink in when we arrive in Manila," he said. "World Cup means being world-class. Just getting there means we're at the level of our opponents who are the best in the world and not just in Asia."
The sixth window of the qualifiers was especially challenging for the Philippine team. After suffering a pair of heartbreaking losses at home last November, Gilas was in dire need of finishing its campaign with two wins on the road.
Gilas also needed help from other countries, and ironically, it was Korea that delivered. By defeating Lebanon, the Ricardo Ratliffe-led Korean team basically handed the World Cup ticket to the Philippines.
"I guess if it's meant for us, it's meant for us," said Guiao. "We were not in control of the other factors but I told the players to focus on the things that we can do and let the other things take care of themselves. It's a good thing Korea won over Lebanon."
The coaches and players hardly slept in the last two weeks. They immediately went to work when they arrived in Doha to maximize the remaining days of preparation, notwithstanding fatigue and jet lag. They drew strength from the Filipino fans who made them feel at home in a foreign land.
Gilas dominated and crushed Qatar to achieve half of the team's goal but they knew that the job was far from over.
A few hours after the game, the team headed to the airport to begin an 18-hour trip to Astana. They were greeted by delays in immigration, freezing temperatures, and another time zone change.
After a long journey filled with challenging twists and turns, Gilas advanced to the biggest basketball tournament with an emphatic win over Kazakhstan.
"We went through a lot with the travel, the cold weather, the lack of sleep, the adjustment to the time difference but we were still able to string together two wins, which were really the most important games for us," Guiao said.
Guiao tipped his hat off to his players and coaching staff for the tremendous effort that they put in. He thanked all the people who rallied behind the team and provided support, such as the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) and the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA). He also gave credit to his predecessor coach Chot Reyes and all the players who competed in the first three windows of the qualifiers.
If it wasn't for the 4-2 record that the previous teams established heading into the second round, Guiao wouldn't be able to put the finishing touches to a tough campaign that lasted for over a year.
"They gave us a huge favor that allowed us to commit some mistakes," said Guiao. "We had some margin for error. We were given the opportunity to get over the learning curve."
In the end, all the hard work and sleepless nights were all worth it. Guiao, a decorated mentor with multiple championships under his belt, considers this one of the most important milestones of his career, which he dedicates to millions of Filipino fans all over the world.
"We're not just talking about one team, we're talking about the whole country," he said. "Everything aligned so that we can reach the World Cup. This is our gift to the Filipino people who are crazy about basketball."