Pinoy Football: An Unexpected Love Affair

Someone recently asked me, “Are you dating someone?” I smiled and said, “No.” He then asked, “Are you looking for someone?” I paused for a moment and replied, “No, not really.” Truth is, I was already in love.

This piece I wrote for InterAKTV will give you the sordid details of that romance.

Pinoy Football: An Unexpected Love Affair

This is not a recap of the year that was. We all know that 2011 has been a banner year for Philippine football, about how it was resurrected by an unlikely group of fellows (some of the pin-up boy variety) to make Filipinos notice the sport and to get them to sit through some 90 minutes of action in an attempt to understand what the “beautiful game” is all about.

This is a glimpse of one fan’s journey in a year or so.

I will be the first to admit that I didn’t care about the Azkals prior to the 2010 Suzuki Cup—heck, I didn’t even know they existed back then. I apologize; my attentions when it came to football were always turned to Europe. That said, all it took was one draw against Singapore in December 2010 for this team to capture my attention.

As with any courtship, one can witness the highs and lows even at the early stages. What thrills came with the ultimate underdogs beating Vietnam, what relief to secure a draw against Myanmar to book a place in the semifinals, and what heartbreak it was to be beaten twice by Indonesia. Maybe it’s this emotional pull that’s always been present in the football teams that I support that drew me in to the Azkals. Maybe I just really am attracted to the ones that have and had to overcome much adversity. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a bit of both.

If someone told me that I would be somewhere left of the center in this unlikely love affair, I would have shaken my head in disbelief. I guess though, somewhere, someone, had different plans in mind.

I remember one January afternoon when I received a message asking me if I wanted to interview the Azkals. A leading broadsheet was set to do a feature on them, and someone volunteered my name as someone fairly interested and with a bit of knowledge about the sport. Soon enough, I found myself face-to-face and side-by-side with a sweaty Phil Younghusband, a throng of DSLRs trained on his face (my ego boost: his attention was focused on me for a good 10 minutes). Perhaps it came as a surprise to him, to have a girl ask him football questions, not dating ones. I thought to myself, hey, this isn’t too shabby.

I should have worn my Liverpool shirt that day. Ho ho ho.

Now I am not a person that does great things for love—it was never in my character. Yet, if there was an ultimate expression of love for this team in my book, it was booking a flight to Bacolod to catch the team’s February 9, 2011 match versus Mongolia for the AFF Challenge Cup in Panaad Stadium. Now this was pretty much the team’s first match when more than a handful people actually cared about them—and I can say that I was there, when Chieffy Caligdong scored a nutmeg of a goal in the dying minutes of the first half, and Phil Younghusband added another in injury time, doing justice to a #10 shirt that I had illogically bought as a result of fangirl stupor.

Facing their supporters on their first match in the Philippines following their 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup heroics.

I didn’t know it back then, but somewhere amidst the celebrations in Bacolod, I was slowly, slowly falling in love with this team—and that’s not because some of them were good-looking. I found myself tracking their matches away from home: in Mongolia and Myanmar for the AFF Challenge Cup Qualifiers; in Sri Lanka and Kuwait, for the World Cup Qualifiers; in Taiwan for the Long Teng Cup; and in Singapore for an international friendly. I was either tuned in to the television or on livestreaming, and heck, even on Twitter for “tweetcasts” of matches that couldn’t be aired on real-time. If this was not obsessive, I don’t know what is.

And for every tracked match away from home, there I found myself present for every home game of this national team—and that did not come with its own challenges.

I was there drenched to the skin on the blue bleachers when the Philippines routed Sri Lanka 4-0, sharing a raincoat with a friend that managed to land on the floor when we started cheering for every goal scored. I was there when Stephan Schröck once again made his presence felt in a golazo against Kuwait, keeping my hopes alive, even after we had been clinically drubbed in the first leg of the second stage of the World Cup qualifiers (or course, this is equally memorable as his shirtless lap of honor). I even left my malfunctioning joke of a car on the side of the dark road to catch the friendly match versus Nepal.

Too much bitchface in this photo. I like it.

I was there when the legendary David Beckham and the rest of LA Galaxy stamped their class over the Azkals in a 6-1 victory. Although secretly, I was just also immensely thrilled to finally see in person Chris Greatwich play at midfield (the Greatwich brother that actually has function and value in this position—and I still am hoping for a Chris Greatwich-Stephan Schröck midfield partnership in 2012). Really, I wasn’t joking when I said I’d pay good money to see Chris Greatwich play.

If you still don’t know the point of this photo, I really don’t know anymore.

As if following multiple football leagues and national teams weren’t enough (to be thrown in with my day job and other advocacy work, for that matter), I got myself dragged to watch the UFL Cup. I remember that testy match between the Loyola Meralco Sparks and Stallion FC. I remember that match between the Sparks and Kaya FC, where the Sparks summoned the spirit of the Miracle of Istanbul (sorry, non-Liverpool fans, I had to make that reference), winning 5-4 after being down 0-3 at the half. And yes, I was there when Yanti Barsales showed the boys why he’s a local football legend, chipping a goal to help the Air Force cinch the championship over the Sparks, 2-0.

Yet, as with any love affair, the ups and downs go with the journey. I’m just a girl in the stands watching the sport I’ve grown to love unfold right before my eyes with the Azkals and the local league. Far from the action, I’ve made mental notes of little observations on each match, the commendable performances, the frustrations—and really, all I can hope for is for the local league to thrive and for genuine competition for spots on the national team to exist.

It’s been quite a year, and it has been made tremendously enjoyable by the characters I met on the stands. The ones who stood up to say that not all girls watch football for the players’ abdominal muscles. The ones who laughed at all my Phil Younghusband jokes and equally fawned over him. The ones who shared with me little-known stories about the national team. The ones who supported the teams I loved and hated and shared analyses over Twitter exchanges, meals, and bottles of beer. The ones who I am privileged to have shared this unlikely love affair with Philippine football.

2011 has been so much more than a whirlwind love affair, and I’m ready for the stories and adventures that this love affair with Philippine football will take me to in 2012. Moreover, despite our #10’s best efforts to get me majorly turned off with his brilliant finishing, I will still be rooting for him and the rest of the national team to do well in the year ahead. After all, we’re still on course for a World Cup appearance in 2054.

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