The Men in the Arena*

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

Philippine National Team captain and veteran defender Rob Gier summed up the match versus Turkmenistan quite succinctly during the post-match press conference.

“It was a tough game, it was totally, totally different from the Cambodia game,” he says, adding that the match versus Cambodia placed the limelight on the Philippines’ attackers. “(The Turkmenistan game) was all about the defenders. It just goes to show the different aspects of the team together, to be successful.”

“I think what’s special about this team is the team spirit,” Gier continues, pointing out that taking on the Turkmen demanded a lot from the Azkals, and the boys could not have done it if they didn’t get along. “We do it for the team, for the country, and for everyone that supports us.”

Indeed, it does take a very special group of people to achieve what these guys have achieved in quite a short span of time.

Consider 2012 a banner year for the Azkals with all the achievements and “firsts” they’ve managed to rack up—setting the stage quite nicely for a strong start in official matches this 2013. The 8-0 win versus Cambodia wasn’t just a victory—it was a statement.

And even that somewhat pales to the statement that was made when the Philippines finally beat Turkmenistan, 1-0.

Much has been and will be said about the match, including that particularly memorable shot by Phil Younghusband into the opening seconds of the game, how we started strongly, and managed to hold onto the lead despite being down to ten men.

All the credit goes to this team.

Credit Phil Younghusband for the goal, and credit him for all the times that he’s tried and missed and failed. He’ll keep fighting for those goals, as he had done with over 30 before. Credit him for the times he’s had to deal with one too many defenders eager to take him down.

Credit Javier Patiño for bringing the quality to the strike force that we had been badly missing and that Phil Younghusband needs to draw defenders away from him. Credit him for bringing the ball to the goal each chance he gets and for threatening opponents whenever he can.

Credit Jerry Lucena and Chris Greatwich for providing adequate defensive cover and finding the open men to attack.

Credit Carli de Murga and Angel Guirado for the Spanish flair that they bring to the right flank.

Credit Rob Gier and Juani Guirado for being staunch on defense, for giving us a sense of security even in those moments when momentum was turning in favor of Turkmenistan, in those moments when they tried their best to breach our back line.

Credit Roland Müller for the clean sheets he’s produced in these two very important games. Credit him for his solid, steady hands, for proving himself worthy of the starting spot in a position with several viable options. Credit him for no longer being defined as just a second choice.

Credit Dennis Cagara for his consistency. Against Turkmenistan, he effectively snuffed threats coming from his side. Credit him for playing a critical role in the play that led to Phil Younghusband’s goal to lift us past the Turkmen. Credit him for us having a dangerous left flank.

Credit Stephan Schröck for everything that he brings to this team. Credit him for always fighting for the ball, for managing a way out even when the opponents close down on spaces. Credit him for standing up a half-second later when he’s brought down, showing what tenacity is. Credit him for making things happen, not just for himself, but also for his teammates. Credit him for being a spark on the left flank, together with Cagara, relentless in attacking. Credit him for instilling in all of us a belief that we can overcome each opponent we are faced with.

Credit all the players that have seen limited or no playing time. Credit them for helping prepare this unit to achieve another milestone in Philippine football.

The match versus Turkmenistan proved to be a difficult hurdle—and one where lessons could be learned from hard work and experience. Credit the men in the arena for fighting tooth and nail for making another statement and for booking a place in Maldives in 2014.

*Title inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quotation.

**And there is one man in that arena that I was particularly rooting for, largely because he has finally been given playing time in the national team. He had a nice little gesture the day after as well, and this is why I’ll continue supporting him.

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Wet, Wild, and Everything in Between

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

“I didn’t know this game was on my bucket list until it happened,” my friend Ron enthuses, as we were cheering on a group of ball boys and girls scooping excess water from the sides of the pitch at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Indeed, who would have thought that the Philippines-Cambodia match was one for the books? Hubris aside, an easy victory was expected, but the style and manner by which the Azkals had won the match was certainly beyond expectations.

When Turkmenistan routed Cambodia last Friday, the 7-0 scoreline seemed to be a tall order for the Philippines to overcome, as we start our bid to top Group E in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers.

The first twenty or so minutes of the match revealed a seeming lack of cohesion among our boys. However, when Phil Younghusband began the scoring festivities with a scrappy goal at the 25th minute, the proverbial floodgates opened up for the Azkals. Younghusband would score three more goals in the match, including one from a curling shot in the 30th minute of the match.

Javier Patiño, in his debut for the Philippine national team, netted a brace, scoring in the 45th and 57th minutes. The Filipino-Spaniard proved to be an effective attacking option behind Younghusband, showing he could take matters into his own feet (pun intended) in front of the goal.

Stephan Schröck, who was tearing up the left flank all game long, was an absolute delight to watch, especially as he made mincemeat out of the Cambodian defense. Schröck himself would score a goal at the start of the second half, taking the Cambodians by surprise and reducing goalkeeper Samreth Seiha to pounding the ground out of frustration. (Schröck was my man of the match—the man was also creating opportunities for his teammates all day long, to top it all off.)

Carli de Murga secured the Philippines’ current place on top of the Group E standings with a goal in the 88th minute, and in ninja-esque style.

In the post-match press conference, Stephan Schröck stated, “Everybody was happy. Coach gave us the right words.” Coach Hans Michael Weiss also congratulated the team for their achievement, pointing out the value that quality players bring with their individual skills.

Then there were the surprises apart from the goals.

A power outage occurred as the first half was about to end, leaving only a couple of floodlights to illuminate the pitch.

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Earth Hour at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, anyone?

Even topping that was the temporary suspension of the match at the 65th minute, with the crowd waiting it out for an hour before the play could resume. The credit goes to the rag-tag team of boys and girls that had to manually scoop out the water puddles on the sides and at certain portions of the pitch, armed with nothing but brooms, pails, and empty trash bins.

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I really hope these guys were paid a bit more for all the effort they put into “unclogging” the pitch.

Sometimes, the label of “emerging football nation” doesn’t get any more blatant with this kind of pitch. Coach Weiss lamented it “an absolute embarrassment to play in these conditions”. Schröck added that the pitch was not as good as he had expected.

In any case, Sunday night proved to have been the stuff of lopsided matches, puddle-riddled pitches, and highly uncertain weather. The only thing that is certain is that there is so much to look forward to on Tuesday evening, as the Philippines and Turkmenistan battle it out for the top spot of Group E of the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers.

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Easily my MOTM. Schröcky is (and continues to be) a beast.