Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Suddenly, football in our hearts

Krip Yuson

Expect a cable channel devoted to sports to enjoy a sudden spike in viewership from all over our islands for the 8:25-to-10:30 p.m. timeslot on Wednesday, December 8, when a suddenly popular Pinoy football team that has fired up our national imagination goes up against Myanmar in the final match of the quarterfinal stage of the Suzuki Cup currently ongoing in Vietnam.

Those of us who were fortunate to have seen our booters live in action last Sunday night on Star Sports will forever hold on to those marvelous images:a resolute defense mounted by an underdog against the swift offensive thrusts of the host Vietnamese urged on by 40,000 hometown fans; our midfielders and backside standing fast against wave after wave of attacks as the defending champions dominated ball possession; then in a rare incursion into Goliath's very turf, the David of the tourney daring to rock the boat, the stadium, the form charts, and region-wide expectations by ASEAN football addicts, never mind the mixed metaphors ...

From a corner kick ensues a cross from Anton del Rosario that finds Fil-Brit Chris Greatwich suddenly rising high inside the penalty area, amidst a tangle of bobbing heads and clashing shoulders, and on the 38th minute, he concocts a header that eludes the Viet goalie to find the corner of the net.

Nicknamed the Azkals, PHL national football team players celebrate their stunning 2-0 win over defending champion and host team Vietnam on Sunday in the Suzuki Cup in Hanoi. AFF Suzuki Cup website

It is but the first half of a miracle, as we are to cheer with relish much later. We cannot believe we are up by a goal over the champs and hosts, and now hope only that we can hold them down to just a single comeback goal in 52 more minutes of play, and then some, to earn yet another heretofore unimaginable draw against a powerhouse.

Our Pinoy 11, labeled as the Azkals after street curs, manage to chew off more than they've bitten, succeed in holding the fort for the rest of the half. So that for the next 15 minutes of real-time respite, we feel good, and warmly excited, and remember to send SMS to all our friends who may have a smidgen of sportslovers' blood in their veins.

Hey, catch up and watch this: we might yet tie Vietnam after our draw with Singapore three days previous. Our football team is going great guns behind half-a-dozen Fil-Euros.

The second half starts and our hopes hold up even as the Vietnamese appear even more fearsome in their determined onslaught: attack after attack being foiled by disciplined stonewall defense, plus some splendid goalkeeping by Neil Etheridge, 6-foot-three, robust, agile and athletic.

Forty minutes to go. 35. Excruciating suspense builds up. Occasionally, a counter-attack, which begins to look increasingly effective for its simplicity of execution, helped along by the overconfidence of the Viet backline that simply trusts in their individual skills even as they move nearly totally forward, thus exposing porous team defense.

There is a moment when the unimaginable almost comes true. A lofted ball sailing across the penalty area is miscalculated by the Viet goalie, giving forward Ian Araneta a great chance to nudge it into a defenseless net. But he hits the goalpost instead, maybe in his excitement. A rueful smile. Just his luck, as in the first half he had also almost opened up scoring but for that corner post.

But minutes later, on the 79th, a similar broken play in erstwhile virgin Viet territory finds Phil Younghusband with the ball, marked by a lone defender in the penalty area. He is calm, even appears slow, yet succeeds with a feint and flicks the ball past one more rushing defender and the diving goalie.

Now we cannot believe our eyes, ears, the pounding in our hearts. 2-0! And it is us, the Pinoy Azkals, that are up over the powerful Vietnamese!

Now, surely, they cannot score two tying goals in 11 more minutes of play, having failed to deliver one in more than sevenfold that time. We text again: Historic Win coming up!

The stadium crowd has turned into a silent ghost, the very specter of disbelief. The quiet minutes go by, with wave after wave of Vietnamese incursions producing nothing — thanks to our luck, Ethelridge's prowess, and team defense carefully calculated by PHL's English coach, Simon McMenemy.

And we do it! We win, unbelievably.

Now more Pinoys have woken up to the beautiful game, and we need as many as we can have to pray to the Immaculate Conception on her very feastday.

All we have to do is draw with Myanmar and we're in, with 5 points. If Singapore wins over Vietnam in their crucial knockout game, also tomorrow at the same time, 7 p.m. in a different stadium, then Singapore and PHL both make it, with the placings decided by points differential.

The worst thing that can happen is for us to lose to Myanmar and Singapore holds Vietnam to a draw, in which case Singapore clears it with 5 points, and we're tied with Vietnam at 4 points, but they have the points differential advantage on account of their trashing of Myanmar, and we fail to make the semis.

That magnificent effort last Sunday might then go to waste. Or would it? Maybe not, as it has fired us up, and that might be enough.

But if luck and pluck stay on our side, and we draw Myanmar to wind up with 5 points, and Singapore beats Vietnam to amass 7 points, then we make it to the semis, but then face the daunting task of upending Indonesia, tops in Group A, to get to the finals. Same thing happens if Vietnam beats Singapore to settle at 6 points.

Best scenario is we beat Myanmar and sail through, then face a beatable Malaysia that may wind up as Group B second-placer. The semis will be a home-and-away affair, to be held about a week before Christmas Day. Will we be ready for this? Will it be at the Rizal Memorial, our home end of it? Likely. And we should then turn up with warm bodies in full force for our home encounter.

And should we make it past Malaysia, why, that would be a veritable apex, and never mind if we lose both matches, or at least draw one, against powerhouse Indonesia, on Dec. 26 and 29.

For now, let's turn up in full force and watch the game live on TV at 7 p.m. Mark the day, Wednesday, December 8. And maybe from Manila and Baguio and Iloilo and Bacolod and Cebu and Davao and Cagayan de Oro and Zamboanga and Puerto Princesa, our collective cheers will push our boys through, all the way to the best-ever finish we can hope for in Southeast Asian football competition.

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