(Posted here. Also known as my rejoinder for Pinoy football in 2012.)
There are losses that prompt one to write and write until the pain disappears or becomes bearable. Then there are losses that just leave you stunned and muted, unable to articulate anything—and this is what I had been reduced to after the Philippines bowed out of the AFF Suzuki Cup after Singapore.
As overly dramatic as that sounds, it does indicate the level of emotional investments and high expectations I have for the national team. If you’ve read Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch”, you would understand what such fanaticism meant. For the record, I thought he sounded insufferable throughout much of the book—and I recognize the same kind of despair in myself when Singapore came out celebrating a victory spelled by a lone goal made by Khairul Amri in the 19th minute of the second leg of the semifinal match.
Singapore went on to have an explosive first leg against Thailand in the first leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup Finals, winning 3-1. The Lions did not look to park the bus in the second leg, attempting to counterattack in the rare moments that they were presented an opportunity to do so. They didn’t run a dangerous game by sitting back and being content to defend their goal. Despite losing to Thailand in the second leg, 1-0, the Lions were crowned the champions of Southeast Asia this year.
Inevitably, this space isn’t for Singapore—who had a topsy-turvy road to becoming the champions, despite the genius of Raddy Avramovic. Neither is it for Thailand—who were the heavy favorites coming into the tournament and who stamped their dominance in every match, except for that one match that made all the difference (in retrospect, how crucial was that third goal of Singapore!).
This is, still, for the Azkals.
In the post-AFF Suzuki Cup finals commentary, there was talk about how the Philippines were now no longer Asia’s whipping boys, but that the team failed to build on their 2010 campaign. Perhaps it was a comment from an outsider looking merely at the results of that particular tournament and simply comparing it with the performance from two years ago.
2012, however, marked a year of significant improvements for the Azkals. Finishing third in the AFC Challenge Cup and being crowned the champions of the Peace Cup were not the easiest of feats. Add to these the series of friendlies held throughout the year to test the team’s mettle.
Along the way, there were a few feats here and there, including beating Singapore (twice, in friendlies, which may have been our undoing in competition—but I’ll stop dwelling on that) and Myanmar, apart from beating Vietnam once again, proving that the Miracle of Hanoi in 2010 wasn’t a fluke.
In the course of such victories, adjustments have been made and figureheads have emerged as heroes. Chieffy Caligdong may no longer be the usual starter, but he has always proven to be the spark off the bench (and nobody could ever doubt his heart—remember him going against Singapore’s midfielders who were twice his size?). Rob Gier, now, in more ways than one, has been the anchor of this team—a rock on defense and a leader on the pitch. Ed Sacapaño, since that performance against Singapore on November 15, now walks a little taller, a little prouder—dispelling any doubts on who should be on goal.
One can choose to look at the end result of our 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup campaign and dismissively say that the team hadn’t built on the surprises of two years ago, or choose to look at the path that the boys have forged this year—which tells much, much more.
When I was watching Singapore celebrate their victory, I can’t help but think that that could be us in two years’ time. Southeast Asian football just got much more competitive, and our boys are right in the thick of things. There’s much work to be done, more so in the coming year. We’ll keep believing, and the Azkals will keep clawing to the top.