Guys in white and blue rushed up the well-trimmed pitch towards the opponent’s goal. Everybody in Panaad Stadium in Bacolod, Philippines was holding their breath. The home team should’ve been able to score from the onset.
The game was already in the 42nd minute of the first half. No team has scored a goal. The Mongolian defense did their best to contain the Philippine Azkals offense, same with the impressive backline of the Filipino side. But to most watchers, it was astounding. Mongolia has nothing against this Philippine football team for the ages, and it has held them to a nil-nil tie. This cannot be.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
The tie held until Emil Caligdong, the pride of Iloilo in the Azkals team, decided it was enough. Shuffling through his defender, the man everyone called “Chieffy,” for he is a member of the Philippine Air Force, rifled through a great shot that busted the Mongolian wall and through the goalkeeper, drawing first blood in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup game between the Philippines and Mongolia. Everyone roared their approval of Caligdong’s brilliant play. The left winger for the Azkals came through when they needed him the most to break the tension.
The furious action continued in the second half where the Philippine team pushed the Mongolian defense to its limit. Ian Araneta, James Younghusband, Justin de Jong and the rest kept the ball in favor of the Azkals’ side for almost 80% of the whole game. Chances came and went, a lot of hairline calls for the Mongolians, but their defense still held. Amazing, the Mongolians are really giving everything they have. That is until Phil Younghusband decided to turn on the jets and boosted the ball through the keeper once more for a two-nil lead. The former Chelsea reserve put the punctuation mark to an impressive outing for the Philippine Azkals. Everyone in the Stadium went ballistic. Fireworks lit the sky up to add flair for the celebration of the Philippines.
It was an overall good game for the Azkals, playing at the expectation everyone set, more so on the offensive side which new German coach Michael Weiss wanted to emphasize greatly. It was as if the back line of the Azkals took a day off, with, by my count, only one miscue: Neil Etheridge, the wall from Fulham, left the goalpost and decided to have fun as a midfielder. Thank god, Aly Borromeo was there to hawk the streaking lone Wolf and turning it over to the Azkals.
Now you may be wondering, why am I suddenly writing about the Beautiful Game? Simple, I’m a fan. I’m a fan of football, not to mention that of the Samba Boys from Brazil. But aside from that, I was really watching this new Philippine football team even before they called themselves the Azkals. All the way before that big, big win over Vietnam, a powerhouse in the Southeast Asia region, in the Suzuki Challenge Cup last December, which triggered the Azkalmania.
I knew of team captain Aly Borromeo way back in his U-19 days as a goalkeeper before being a utility player for the Azkals. For me, he’s the backbone of that tough Azkals backline. No discredit to Neil Etheridge, the rock star goalkeeper of the team, but Borromeo keeps everyone in line along with veteran left wing Chieffy Caligdong. He definitely has come a long way, and for that, kudos to the hulking presence in the backline of the Azkals.
Caligdong on the other hand, is an impressive sight to behold with the ball. No wasted movements, everything precise and right on the dot. I believe he owes it to being a member of the Air Force. The most veteran of them all, Chieffy has been an asset offensively, as is the rest of the frontline.
This team has a lot of potential to really make an impact in football the way Japan and Korea did, and still continues to do. I’m sure you know that China is practically dominant in every sport that it enters whether it is in the Asian Games or Olympics, or various international competitions. But in football, the Red Devils of South Korea and Japan are the wonder boys, especially South Korea who surprised everybody when it hosted the FIFA World Cup a few years back by reaching the Semis. It triggered a football craze in the region which the Philippine nation is slowly catching up to.
I really stand by my statement that the Azkals can impact Asian Football the way the Red Devils did in their glory run to the World Cup Semifinals. Why can’t you when they made it to the 10th best story of Sports Illustrated in the year 2010 for their stunning demolition of Vietnam? The boys just need support, which is now amply provided by Manny V. Pangilinan, a corporate mogul who is known as a sports enthusiast. And to be honest, it is best Filipinos concentrate more on sports they can actually dominate like football and baseball. These sports don’t require the height with which are so vainly deprived of for basketball and volleyball.
Take a close look, besides from the goalkeeper who actually benefits from his height, who else does? Midfielders need to see above their opponent’s heads? Not quite, they watch for angles all over the field, not just overhead as is an advantage in basketball terms. Also, the Filipinos have the lithe build that is best suited for the Beautiful Game. In the Ateneo, a well-known university for athletics and academics in the Philippines, you could tell if someone is a football player, or part of the Blue Booters, the school’s football team: his or her skin is slightly tanned or brown (for those with light complexions), a little, but not necessarily short, and legs that look like mini-tanks. Of course saying they’re like mini-tanks is an exaggeration, but you get the picture. A kick can probably down a grown man from those mini-tanks.
And with those street children and snatchers one can find in Manila, mostly, in Quiapo? Why can’t we turn it into a gold mine of future Azkals? Give them better lives, wait, let me correct that, give them a life. Funding? Well, Manny Pangilinan is offering his deep pockets. You know what’s another factor besides the man’s pockets? He’s a winner. All of his teams are known winners. San Beda College in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the oldest league in the country, Ateneo de Manila University from the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) and the Talk N Text Tropang Texters from the professional league, Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), the first pay for play league in Asia, all have one common denominator: they are all champions. And the man himself, he’s a successful one I dare say. Wait that is an understatement, he’s the most successful businessman in the country owning major shares in the largest companies like San Miguel, Meralco and has a TV station of his own that is slowly garnering a massive following, TV5. All those companies, he made them filthy rich in a span of a few years. And that’s why, it translates to the teams he supports and backs (well an exception is the Philippine Basketball team that was comprised of professionals, who are known tankers in competition). After all, it would be a shame if you lose in front of your boss and backer, for he watches games of his teams.
After recruitment and funding, what’s next? Support, that is. Yes, as much as we howl for our basketball players, we should cheer louder, shout our lungs out more for these boys. This is something we Filipinos can win ladies and gentlemen. I feel it in my bones. We have the athletic means, the smarts, the diskarte that makes us so ingenious next to opponents and adversaries. We just have to use it towards a positive goal, instead of putting it in the backburner, which we certainly do next to the national sport that is basketball. The same can be said for other sports such as baseball which is popular in the Visayan region of the country. I really want the Azkals to come out on top more than I want the Philippine SMART Gilas team to earn the country its first ever basketball ticket to the Olympics since the great Caloy “The Big Difference” Loyzaga manned the paint in years past.
However, I’d also like to see some of the former UAAP star booters like Giovanni Simpron of FEU. Boy was that guy one heck of a striker. Like Ateneo’s Miguel Tuazon who was a football prodigy during his days in Ateneo de Manila High School, and of course, Patrick Ozaeta, the 2004-06 UAAP MVP to name a few. That would be exciting indeed. A shot of young blood with the toughness of the veterans would suit the national team well. Not to mention, the ones above are considered geniuses in the pitch.
They can make it. I’m sure of that. I’ll bet my life’s salary on this. Give them Azkals a few more years, better program, better use of funds, better exposure then BAM! We can follow the footsteps of Japan and South Korea. We can be competitive in the most popular sport in the planet. No it’s not basketball, its football. Football! And sooner than you think, purebred Filipinos (no knocks on Fil-foreigners) will be trundling up and down the pitches in Barcelona, Madrid, England, and Germany, starring for their ball clubs and earning a handsome salary, and most especially, bringing back Filipino supremacy that got lost during the downfall of the Marcos regime.