Tuesday, 21 December 2010

From catatonic to supersonic

Rick Olivares
Business Mirror

YOU know what song came to my mind when the Azkals’ rock ‘n’ roll express blew into Jakarta? It was Oasis’s “Supersonic.”

The rock anthem may be dripping with swagger but definitely not the Philippine national men’s football team although they went through two rounds and six different national squads while taking names and kicking butt. Indeed, the team had gone from catatonic to supersonic.

I have been asked several times if the team in the wake of its recent success has been treated like rock stars. Not quite rock stars despite the Oasis song. Not at all. They have to queue for food and pay for their room Internet connection. Moreover, they are just ordinary blokes trying to lift the consciousness about football in a basketball republic and hopefully make history along the way.

And with every game, the believers grew. The game of football truly transcends borders because the Philippines was winning fans left and right from Laos to Singapore to Vietnam to Indonesia.

Prior to the match between the Philippines and Singapore, the Lions’ many-time champion coach Radojko Avramovic was asked what he thought of the Azkals. “You make the semifinals first then I will talk about the Philippines,” he said derisively.

After the Filipinos handed defending champion Vietnam a 2-nil defeat marking one of the greatest upsets in tournament history, the Singaporeans, who had been watching the game intently from the lower box broke out in cheer. That evening, Avramovic hung out with the Philippine team in the lobby of the Hanoi Sheraton swapping war stories and dousing the Azkals with profuse praise.

On the day of the Philippines’ match against Myanmar in Nam Dinh City in Vietnam, the team walked around a nearby park for their customary limbering session. As they walked around the pond, seven Vietnamese youths in bicycles followed the team around. A few mouthed expletives while one challenged a member of the team staff to a fist fight.

But for the most part, it would be safe to say that 80 percent of the comments from the locals was overwhelmingly positive. One coffee shop barista pointed to his temple and said that the home team did not use its brains. When it came to the visiting David who slew Goliath, he licked his lips to measure his limited English: “Very good. You know what I mean? Very good.” Then he bowed.

Nam Dinh was the city where 13th century General Tran Hung Dao was born. The soldier won two of the biggest battles in modern warfare. And here 22 Filipino football players and the 11 support staff won over the locals’ hearts and minds in a battle held on a pitch 50 miles away in Hanoi.

In the team’s final practice before the second match with Indonesia in a nearby practice pitch, onlookers—three people deep—surrounded the entire field. During a light scrimmage, when Phil Younghusband scored a goal, a collective cheer from the crowd went up. Since when did people cheer a practice goal! And since when did four Indonesian television networks cover a practice complete with an OB van? It was just an hour’s worth of practice.

During the first match with Indonesia, the entire Gelano Bung Karno Stadium was so noisy that one did not hear the Philippine national anthem playing. By the second match, there were cheers emanating from the capacity crowd of 80,000 plus.

The Azkals valiantly battled on to try and forge a two-goal lead over the host country in order to advance to the finals but last Sunday night, Indonesia was far more superior and had the quicker step to their pace. The Philippines bowed out of the competition with an aggregate 2-nil loss.

During the 45-minute drive to the team hotel that is just next to the stadium (it was made so because of the sheer number of people and vehicles parked around the area), the expletives, bad signs and hostile challenges that had marked their welcome two matches running was now replaced with cheers and applause.

In their group stages, Indonesia scored an astonishing 13 goals against their competition. The Filipinos held them to two goals and could have nearly taken a point or three had some balls found the back of the net. As Indonesia head coach Alfred Riedl said: “Prior to this tournament, any match against the Philippines was an automatic win.” Teams talked not of wins but by how many goals they would score. Now, every team had to take them seriously.

Said Philippine team manager Dan Palami: “We may have lost the game but Team Pilipinas has gained the respect of many for the truly valiant stand against the footballing giants of the region. This is but the start of the Azkal’s journey towards conquering greater challenges.”

To paraphrase the end line of the film “Cool Runnings” which is about the legendary Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, “The Azkals [returned] to the Philippines as heroes. When they return as an automatic entry in the group stages in the Suzuki Cup in 2012, they will compete as equals.”

Azkals vs. Mongolia in Panaad

AFTER a highly successful 2010 Suzuki Cup stint where the Philippines cracked the semifinals for the first time in the 14-year history of the tournament (only to be waylaid by Indonesia, the top goal-scoring team of the competition), the Azkals break for the holidays before returning to training mid-January for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup qualifiers in a home and away series with Mongolia that kicks off on February 9, 2011 in Panaad, Bacolod City.

“We have written Mongolia about the possibility of hosting the two matches in Panaad,” said Philippine Football Federation president Mariano Araneta. “It would be difficult to play in Mongolia at that time of the year because it’s the height of their winter season. We have sent them a letter of request and are waiting for their reply.”

The Azkals will also be competing in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers that begin by mid-next year and the year-ending Southeast Asian Games that will be held in Jakarta. The groupings for the World Cup qualifiers have yet to be determined by FIFA.

“We will be meeting with the national team management to discuss how we can help them and what needs to be done to bring the team to the next level,” added Araneta who was in Jakarta for the first match of the Suzuki Cup semifinals to lend some support. “Hopefully, what they achieved in Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia which is significantly raising awareness of the sport in the Philippines will continue to rise. We have shown that this is a sport where we can truly be competitive.”

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