During the first leg of the 2014 World Cup Asian qualifiers at Sugathadasa Stadium, I was taken aback by Sri Lanka’s aggressive performance, in the first half, especially. While they weren’t great, it seemed as though they were programmed to frustrate the Azkals. For a moment, it even made James Younghusband lash out. Three of our players got booked. While the wannabe mariachi band and the crows hovering over the poorly-maintained field were distracting throughout the game, I was able to conclude by halftime that, in general, the Azkals were a bit ineffectual in every department during that first half. At first I didn’t understand why Paul Mulders, an attacking midfielder, became a left-back, and Stephan Schröck, a right back, became a central midfielder. I am a big fan of the 4-4-2 formation, but the right players should be in their proper positions to make it work. I certainly didn’t think that it was the best time for experimenting and reinventing, but I gave Coach Weiss the benefit of the doubt. By the end of the game, I realized that Schröck might have just become my favorite Azkal, and I was satisfied with the 1-1 draw since they didn’t have the home advantage. Admittedly, I was uneasy about the second leg. Coach Weiss had to prepare the team tactically, emotionally, and mentally.
July 3rd, the day of the second leg, was my first time to watch a football game live. There I was, standing right beside the stadium entrance, radiating with excitement and optimism. I don’t really have any pre-game rituals, but before I entered Rizal Memorial Stadium, I summoned my inner Sir Alex Ferguson and started chewing gum for good luck. I was welcomed by the unreasonably tight security and this lady ushered me to a yellow seat that, to my surprise, was far from comfortable and was designed to punish taller people. Some of the Under-23 squad (Simon Greatwich, Paulo Pascual, James Rochlitz, and OJ Porteria) were seated four or five rows behind me. I should have been focused on the game alone, but the heat and my seat, quite honestly, began to test my patience. Let’s not forget the security at the venue and the dozens of thoughtless spectators standing up to block my view. Did it ever occur to them that everything looks better sitting down?
Oh, and yes, I finally came to understand the notoriety of the vuvuzela. Thanks to some kid blowing it directly into my ear, I get to say hello to early-onset hearing loss! So security banned pens and umbrellas, but not vuvuzelas? Please explain. Also, it’s funny how some fans were able to sneak pens and umbrellas in, anyway. Food and drinks were also banned, but if you thought they sold them at the venue itself, you thought wrong. I mean, RFM’s Vitwater, Moo, and Kettle Korn were available, but they weren’t exactly what most people wanted. I was dying of thirst, and fans were chanting, “Tubig, tubig!” (“Water, water!”) to the tune of “Ole, Ole” at one point. Clearly, they need to sit down and review their list of prohibited items. I started the day burning with glory. Was something in the air trying to put out my football flame?
Fortunately, it began to rain. That’s when I somehow began to realize that I had no right to complain—by the way, after reading the must-read article “When Results Don’t Matter…” by Jaron Genota, l wanted to punch myself for the way I reacted—if only I could restart the day. Thousands of fans on the bleachers got drenched in the rain, but I don’t think they grumbled. They even roared louder than ever as if it rained Red Bull on them. The spirit didn’t die, but was only reinforced. I also glanced at the journalists who were jotting down notes and they didn’t seem to mind the distractions. From that instant, I told myself that if other people could enjoy the game the way they wanted then so could I. In my head, I started having my own live commentary, which was just a repertoire of inane chatter (my seatmate later on revealed that she was waiting for me to do a live commentary). I also kept cheering for Paul Mulders and Stephan Schröck since the spectators around me kept rooting for Chieffy alone (I know his name is catchy, but he wasn’t the only remarkable player on the pitch).
When Lahiru Tharaka pointlessly tackled Stephan Schröck and sent him down within the penalty area, I blatantly shouted with unhinged delight because a penalty kick or shot would be awarded. So yes, thanks to Phil’s penalty-kick goal, he scored a brace for the Azkals. Subsequently, Sri Lanka’s incorrigible Rohana Ruwan Dinesh got his second yellow card, and this time around, for committing a handball. Believe it or not, I am one of those people who find second-half sending-offs (opposing team) gratifying and magical for some reason. Nevertheless, my seatmate and I noticed some of the Azkals being immoderately “selfish,” which was later mentioned by Coach Weiss himself. Well, I’m not saying and implying that I’m a football pundit, but there’s a certain kind of “selfishness” that is acceptable and tolerable in football.
Some fans apparently treated the sport like basketball, as in they expected the Azkals to score every second; hence, they never really sat down, but at least the energy didn’t die and it offered the team a lot of encouragement. They say that in football standing up to acclaim a goal is an involuntary action, like sneezing. I can finally vouch for its absolute authenticity, except for the guys who were standing the whole time. I had to watch the replay on Studio 23 to relish the four goals and to check if I missed anything—a lot, actually!—and to observe the players’ nifty footwork and creativity, if any.
The game ended with the Azkals securing a crucial victory 4-0 against Sri Lanka to seal the first round of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifiers. The team crushed Sri Lanka 5-1 on aggregate to set up the next battle against Kuwait. We definitely made history and it was such an honor to witness it live. I guess it’s safe to say that a home game, whether you win or lose, will always have this celebratory air. We’ve already won just by being there. Honestly, I secretly cried in a manly kind of way when the Azkals won. All the things the team has been through quickly flashed through my mind, and a teardrop found its way down my cheek like Chieffy marauding down the wing. Filipinos may act and talk differently, but the Azkals brought us all together to speak one language: the sport. Filipino pride has never been this tangible, and you shouldn’t let anybody, not even your fear of Kuwait’s FIFA rank and reputation (and the recent false allegations), tear it apart. In times of trouble and uncertainty, always remember the Azkals’ motto: We believe.
I know my blog entry about the game is more than a week late, but to make up for it, I’ll end this post with a quote from Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch:
Absurdly, I haven’t yet got around to saying that football is a wonderful sport, but of course it is. Goals have a rarity value that points and runs and sets do not, and so there will always be that thrill, the thrill of seeing someone do something that can only be done three or four times in a whole game if you are lucky, not at all if you are not. And I love the pace of it, its lack of formula; and I love the way that small men can destroy big men in a way that they can’t in other contact sports, and the way that the best team does not necessarily win. And there’s the athleticism, and the way that strength and intelligence have to combine. It allows players to look beautiful and balletic in a way that some sports do not: a perfectly-timed diving header, or a perfectly-struck volley, allow the body to achieve poise and grace that some sportsmen can never exhibit.