There are times when I am reminded that supporting the Azkals qualifies as love—when it’s not about sitting through a game of long balls or putting up with the drama of men, it has got to be trekking to Bulacan.
This is perhaps a South kid complaint. After all, there’s nothing as exciting as the prospect of passing through the arterial shithole that is EDSA and having your too smart of a car alert you multiple times that the transmission is close to overheating as you literally inch your way up north.
But really, once you get past the NLEX Toll Gates of Hell (where nobody seems to have a concept of what a straight line is), the drive to the Philippine Sports Stadium (PSS) is smooth and fast. Amid a starless night sky, the PSS and the adjacent Philippine Arena are sights to behold.
After parking in a slightly muddy vacant lot, my friend Ron and I made the long walk to the stadium, arriving just in time to hear the starting lineups being announced.
Entering the PSS, one would obviously think it’s… clean. It’s shiny and new. Still, it’s nowhere near intimidating when only about a quarter of the stadium is filled with people—obviously the ones who love the Azkals in equal measure or more than we do.
By the time eight o’clock rolled around, the players made it to the pitch, and despite whatever pronouncements about being “the strongest Azkals lineup yet”, there’s good reason to be fairly concerned. You’ve got a handful of highly touted names joining the squad for the first time—and who knows how that will pan out. Moreover, the guys have been together for barely two weeks in training. Add to that the last-minute suspense of whether or not certain players will be cleared to play.
And I never thought I would see the day when the Azkals play a 3-5-2 formation. Risky, but it just might pay off against a quicker Bahraini squad.
The first half saw barely any chances for the Azkals and a couple of nervy moments for the defense. Prodigal Azkal Stephan Schröck picked up an injury and had to be taken out in the 22nd minute. Coming into halftime with a 0-0 scoreline was definitely a good sign.
The second half was quite a different story though, with goals by Misagh Bahadoran (his first international goal—would you believe it? My favorite ball hog and dribble boy finally got his own breakthrough after all these years!) and Javier Patiño (another Prodigal Azkal whose goal-scoring exploits in Thailand and China have finally benefited the Philippines!).
Cue the wild cheers—there must have been five different cheer groups at PSS that night, from the Ultras on one end to the familiar beats of the UP Pep Squad on the other. Please, let’s just not have Mexican waves when the stadium is not even half full.
Cue as well the Diving Divas of Bahrain. If you can’t beat them on goals, beat them on the acting department.
That being said, I thought that who made the most difference was Phil Younghusband. If memory serves me right, there have been experiments in the past in club football where he plays a deeper attacking midfield role, and I thought he has been more effective as that, as opposed to being the sole target man up front (seriously, nobody in the Azkal line-up, save for Schröcky, comes close to being as quick as the Middle Eastern teams).
The only slight spoiler to the party was Bahrain scoring a goal in stoppage time. We should have shut them out—after all, we’ll need all the advantages we could get in a tough World Cup Qualifying Group.
And while we’re at it, someone please tell the DOTC to put up a rail express to connect PSS with Metro Manila. Someone, anyone please take a cue from how most of the world do their stadia.