Thursday, 6 January 2011

Year of the Azkals

Business Mirror

IT’S the Year of the Metal Rabbit, and looks like we’re all ready to hop, skip and jump along with the energies of the new year. A cute, bunny kind of year it’s gonna be—if we are to believe the predictions for the Year of the Rabbit—a time to relax, calm our nerves and appreciate leisure. Quite the opposite of the ferocious Year of the Tiger that had us living at the edge most times of the year.

A calmer year though it is, things are definitely buzzing for Philippine football. Ever since the Azkals made tsunamis in the world football stage in early December by defeating defending champion Vietnam in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup 2010, then making it all the way to the semifinals, football as a sport has never looked back.

Suddenly football has become THE sport. The Azkals became a top trending topic on Twitter. Everybody wanted to wear an Azkals Mizuno team shirt but could no longer find any because they’ve been sold out. Teens and other members of the swooning society changed their loyalty from basketball collegiate heroes to the good-looking members of the Azkals team—most notably Phil Younghusband, his brother James and the asteeg goalie Neil Etheridge. Philippine Football Federation head Nonong Araneta said Game One of the Philippines-Indonesia Suzuki Cup semifinals topped TV ratings that night, trouncing the PBA games and basketball.

I definitely believe that. On the night of December 16, I wanted to watch THE semis as well and tried to get into one of those grill and bar restaurants that show sporting events on big TV sets. They were all full. I finally settled for a quiet seat at Valle Verde Country Club where a smaller but truly avid group watched the Azkals mark the Indonesian playing ground with their spunk and character.

What a feat of mental fierceness and focus that was—playing in a foreign land in a sport where Filipino talent had been previously overlooked or undervalued; in a football field that was ablaze with red-shirted fans in all directions of the compass; amid a constant deafening roar of support for the home team and vicious boos for the upstart visitors.

Yet the Azkals fought on, doggedly. “Unlike other teams that played against the Indonesian squads who panicked and got disoriented, our boys were amazingly confident. They stayed unfazed throughout and didn’t succumb to pressure,” Araneta said in a postholiday interview.

Well, we all know what happened to the Azkals. They failed to defeat Indonesia and missed the chance to play in the Suzuki Cup Finals. But that was definitely not the end of their story. In fact, it was only the beginning.

After the Suzuki Cup experience, looks like the current generations’ regard for football will never be the same again. Just before Christmas I got a call from Tony Gloria, advertising/ movie whiz and CEO of the Unitel Group of Companies who said he would like to do an ad campaign for Philippine football, free of charge, just to give a push to his favorite sport. “We keep on insisting about basketball and giving it all the support, but here’s football doing all these good things for us, and we’re not doing enough to help the sport.”

Not anymore. Now, at the very least, there is a resurgence of long-quiet football passions that have been kept in wraps after football support and infrastructure dwindled in the distant past. There is a new awakening for football that is bursting out all over. Some of it comes from youth who are wondering why the Philippines is not in the World Cup when 95 percent of the world seemingly is. Some of it comes from corporate entities looking for a new cause to espouse and a genuine desire to help the country do well in an endeavor that is played out in the world stage. A lot of it comes from a groundswell of patriotic feeling that resulted from what the Azkals were able to accomplish.

It was all there in the Azkals’ adventure: the favorite underdog theme, the nationalistic cause, the excitement and rush of the unexpected. Yes, hunk glamour, too.

Now, says Nonong Araneta, big corporate sponsors have stepped up and offered their support. They do not just want to be sponsors of football; they want to be partners. Old sponsors want to come back. Sporting goods stores want to do more shirts to promote the Azkals. More Fil-foreign football players want to join the national team. In short, things have never been this good for Philippine football and the energies cannot—must not—be ignored.

The 2011 football calendar is full, for those who would want to sustain their love affair with the sport. There’s the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup in February which will be played at the Panaad Football Stadium in Bacolod City. It’s going to be the Philippines vs. Mongolia.

Then the country prepares for its Southeast Asian Games football thrust in April with the Under-23 National Tournament. A July qualifying event for the World Cup will take place, then an Asian Football Federation under-16 tournament takes off in September.

The Southeast Asian Games football event in Palembang, Indonesia, is slated for November 11. The Philippines last played football in the SEAG in 2005.

“We willl organize under-16 and under-19 competitions and go nationwide in 2011. We will invite foreign teams to play against the Azkals to prepare them for their upcoming competitions,” Araneta aadded.

Never has the entire nation been this enthralled and excited about football, thanks to the Philippine Azkals. And thanks again to the Azkals, our resident askal Jodie, a sweet, affectionate Pinay she-dog, can now proudly wear her pedigree.

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