If you must go down, go down fighting

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the usherette at the entrance of the Rizal Memorial Stadium said. “You have to sign a waiver.”

“What for?” I asked, confusion written all over my sweaty face. I had just gotten my ticket a couple of minutes ago, managed to evade several TV crews, and explained to Conan the Barbarian Bouncer that my Canon G10 was not a professional camera.

“Your kid,” she says. I whirled around, looking for my “child”. “What kid?!” I exclaimed indignantly, “I am insulted!”

Well, if this was any indication of the load of surprises that was in store for the night, it was a good one.

(Oh wait, the first surprise was actually a ticket on the grandstand. Thank you, benefactor who wishes to remain nameless. I owe you a real cheeseburger.)

I settled into my seat as the line-ups were being called. Pretty soon, the teams were making their way onto the middle of the pitch. It’s a match that has got a lot hanging on it—the miracle of miracles to send the Philippines to the next round of qualifications for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil or the end of the road to Brazil.

That said, it must be noted that in the first half of the match, Kuwait was playing with the Philippines, employing an attacking style of football as well. Kuwait was attacking on the left flank early on (until they decided to bring in that incredibly annoying Arabian Ronaldinho Fahad Al Enezi, the #7, which evened out the attack on both flanks). Waleed Jumah (#15) and Yousef Nasser (#20) were particularly dangerous.

And boy, oh boy, Kuwait’s counterattacks were damn fast, and their movement and passing displayed fluidity. Kuwait also managed to find their way through a relatively solid back four of the Philippines—talk about weaving through tight spaces. If they weren’t just a tad unlucky, that would have been at least two goals from them. Of course, you got to give credit to Neil Etheridge for deflecting a couple of those shots (I did think he had a rather shaky start though—wasted long balls, anyone?).

It’s not as if we had a shortage of chances either. Rob Gier had an attempt on goal with a header as early as the 8th minute (Rob was also solid on defense, displaying his experience against quicker Kuwaiti attackers). I missed the usual monster game from Angel Guirado Aldeguer though. Watching from the grandstand, I felt like he didn’t have his usual ferocity and that his defenders were always beating him to the ball. Also, all his headers were either off the mark or easily saved by Kuwait’s goalkeeper—who just stamped his class on all of the Philippines’ efforts, including attempts by Aly Borromeo at the 38th minute and by Chieffy Caligdong at the 39th.

And then there were Phil Younghusband’s efforts. Where do we start?

Reminiscent of that epic failure in Kuwait, he had a few chances to get to the ball, and when he did, he was easily dispossessed. It was quite frustrating to watch on the couple of times it happened—you know he can never finish singlehandedly. A lack of quality? A lack of smarts? Either way, those chances may have had a different outcome if help was forthcoming. (I was already screaming “Fail Younghusband!” several times.)

Well into injury time in the first half, there was a scrappy Chieffy Caligdong fighting off two defenders to retain possession of the ball, which managed to find itself on Phil Younghusband (one of the few times he decided to run his lazy butt), who fought for the ball, picked up by Stephan Schröck, who shot a screamer that sailed past Kuwait’s goalkeeper—his first goal for the Philippines and more importantly, a goal that kept the country’s hopes alive.

Let me tell you what it was like when that goal was scored. There was a collective display of sheer joy and elation from tens of thousands of fans in the stadium, coming from a relative resignation that holding the opponent to 0-0 was good enough. It’s that spontaneous display of reaction that makes one think, “This is what it feels like to be alive.”

Here’s the thing with miracles. No matter how insurmountable the challenges may be, one must always hope for them (and no matter how Arabian Ronaldinho was massively play-acting and time-wasting, you have to play on and set aside any urges to kick him in the groin). And the Philippine team clearly had this in mind.

Still, much is left to be desired with various aspects of the game of the Philippines. The passing during attacks has been wasted due to miscommunication (of the few times Fail Younghusband decided to pass, he passed to nobody), the battle of the midfield remains to be in Kuwait’s favor, and there were defensive lapses that cost us dearly, especially at the 61st minute, when Yousef Nasser’s attempt did not even get a reaction from the defense—securing the opponents’ first goal, even when they were down to 10 men (Fahad Al Ebrahim was sent off at the 59th minute).

Kuwait started becoming gung-ho on defense in the last 10 minutes of the match, and on the 83rd minute, their counterattacking paid off once more, after Waleed Jumah beat Aly Borromeo, Neil Etheridge, and Ray Jonsson to score Kuwait’s second in an open goal.

It may have been enough to think, “This is what death feels like.” Yet, you can count on the team and its supporters to rally behind what a street dog is all about—it’s being scrappy, resilient, and if it must go down, it must go down fighting. The final scoreline read Philippines 1 – 2 Kuwait, effectively snuffing out Brazilian dreams. I remember seeing Aly Borromeo hunched near the touchline, seemingly in tears. That was a tad heartbreaking to see. (My personal second half highlight? Seeing Rob Gier release some aggression—and rightfully so.)

Putting things into perspective, however, this was a national team that did not even dare compete in the World Cup qualifiers in recent years and were perennial whipping boys in tournaments, and now, here it was, earning the respect of one of Asia’s most powerful teams. I’m not one to easily call small victories “historic”, and there’s a variety of things that supporters believe in, but what I can say is this: These men have made us dream of what this country can achieve, and they should continue to make us dream—this is but the start for clawing, scratching, scampering, and scrapping our way onto the world stage.

Stand tall, stand proud, you Azkals. It’s a long road ahead to attain glory, and you’ve already made those first steps.

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