After writing “Fútbolution,” I promised myself I would write about something else, like exorcisms or change. Though I never started writing any of them, I did reflect on those two topics for a week until I realized that I was blocked. I also thought about writing about Philippine politics, but you guessed it—I’m going to stick to Philippine football.
On the night of February 9th, it felt like the whole country stopped to watch the first leg of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup prequalifying match. As early as 5:30 in the afternoon, I was already glued to my television screen. By the time the kickoff started, I couldn’t calm my nerves, what with the offensive start! I knew about the team’s plan to go with an offensive strategy, but I didn’t expect it to be as apparent as it was. I only became more engaged. During the first half, the Azkals were in control of the ball for the most part, showcasing their superior football skills, while the Mongolians, having only two attackers, focused on defense. Tension mounted as Mongolia’s No. 9 was called out with a red card, and with him gone, his team was down to nine. I may be blind as a bat, but when I spotted him trying to interfere with James Younghusband’s free kick on the pitch, I wanted to teleport to Panaad Stadium and strangle him to death. James might have faked the free kick, but the intention to impede was pretty obvious. But the best part of the first half, in my opinion, was Chieffy Caligdong’s goal during the 42nd minute. It was his first goal since the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup in Iloilo when the Philippines beat Brunei, 1–0. A friend of mine who is a loyal basketball fan described Chieffy’s goal as “alley-oop sa sarili,” and believe me, it was a compliment. He was impressed! The Mongolian goalkeeper was tougher than he looked, but he was no match for Chieffy, who took the long cross from Anton del Rosario. The first half ended well, but people were probably asking, “Where are the two goals that Phil Younghusband promised?” I’m sure Phil was asking himself the same thing. Somehow, in my head, I could hear him saying, “Cut me some slack, mate!”
When the second half started, I was still savoring Chieffy’s goal (I’m sure he was, too). It’s no surprise that the intensity of the match continued until the second half, though I was a bit dismayed whenever Ian Araneta’s attempts (just like what happened in the first half) didn’t score a goal. Full credit for persistence, I suppose. Well, at least we were treated to Simon Greatwich substituting for Roel Gener, which was kind of exciting (no offense, Roel!). During the first half, I was asking another friend—a Man-U fan since birth—if Roel Gener could be the Azkals’ Ryan Giggs. I’d been waiting for Simon to play. (Just FYI, he’s Chris Greatwich’s younger brother.) Simon’s bicycle kick was brilliant indeed, but he didn’t score a goal. Bummer. It was a funny moment, though, because Chris Greatwich would tweet during the game, and he tweeted his brother: “@SimonGreatwich thought you was gonna score…guess I’m the goalscorer in the family hahaha!” In the 68th minute, Anton del Rosario was replaced by defender Jason Sabio (his debut proved that he could be a threat to Anton, uh-oh!). There were also substitutions on Mongolia’s team. I keep forgetting their tongue-shattering names, though.
Amidst the many attempts (and
sloppy passes) of our players, the second half didn’t exactly meet some sports fanatics and hardcore football fans’ expectations. Nevertheless, the determination was clearly there, and it did pay off. Phil Younghusband’s prediction might not have come true, but he didn’t fail us. He nailed the team’s second goal during injury time. With a 2–0 (two goals out of more than 30 attempts) lead during the home leg, the shutout victory would also foreshadow Fulham FC’s keeping Neil Etheridge in the football club.
OK, I wasn’t planning to discuss the technical details of the game and this isn’t supposed to be one of those articles—I don’t think I’m in any position to conduct a match analysis—but what can I do? After watching the game, that was all I could think about. I know that a lot of people think the Azkals should have scored more goals, but remember that what’s important is that they won, and that inspiring win got the whole country to cheer for the team. That game inaugurated a new era of football in the country. The match even caught the attention of the BBC, and Kate McGeon, their Manila correspondent, was there to cover the match because England’s favorite sport had taken off in the country. “It’s not so much about the quality of the match or how important the match is internationally. It’s more of the Philippines really engaging with football in the way they never happened [sic] before,” McGeon said.
“We believe”: These two words, the Azkals’ motto, have finally become a reality. People have started to believe. Yes, even some basketball coaches and players. Philippine Basketball Association coach Yeng Guiao said, “I’ve always been a believer of the Azkals,” while Smart Gilas player Chris Tiu tweeted, “Congrats to the Azkals. It’s amazing how they’re able to foster a sense of national pride and unity. How I wish we can do the same through basketball.” I don’t know about other writers, bloggers, and journalists, but I felt a sense of camaraderie as I read what they said.
The Azkals’ victory is our victory, and what more could you possibly ask for? There’s no point in panning the performance or jumping down the players’ throats. Of course, Hans Weiss and the players know what they did and what still has room for improvement. I think that right now there is no other Philippine team that inspires us and spawns an excitement for the sport more than the Azkals, and this is just the beginning. I mean, who knew football could do something like that? The Azkals are our new heroes.
“One thing will not change—we will be going out to win.”
— David Beckham