WCQ: Philippines 2 – 1 Bahrain

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.

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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).

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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.

Hopes and Expectations

I started the early morning of December 10 feeling tragically optimistic that Liverpool would somehow cinch a home win over Basel to proceed to the knockout stages of the Champions League. I ended up feeling sorrier for Steven Gerrard than for myself over a crummy 1-1 draw that saw Liverpool largely uninspired and lacking ideas.

I started the evening of December 10 hoping against all hope that the Azkals would break their scoreless streak in the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup for the third consecutive tournament. I ended up feeling sorrier for Rob Gier and his tired, dejected face when the final whistle blew at the Rajamangala Stadium.

This is when your emotional well-being takes a beating. Days and nights end with extreme opposites of emotion. Elation for those shots on target replaced with deflation and what-could-have-beens. Hopes dashed with the knowledge that a shot made or missed spelled the outcome of a game.

Add to that aging captains and talismans who might not be around much longer.

Feelings are indeed all over the place.

Let me take a step back though. There was much optimism surrounding the 0-0 draw in Manila as a momentum that the Azkals could ride on. Maybe it was just us pep-talking ourselves that we could change our fortunes in an away game. After all, recent history (as in the 2012 Suzuki Cup) tells us that a goalless draw at home never really set the stage for an away win.

Two years ago, in the away game against Singapore, we regressed to the 2010-2011 version of ourselves, resorting to long balls and lacking creativity anywhere. This time around, we played catch-up to Thailand since the start of the match—and paid for it. While we were able to impose a semblance of our game in the second half, Thailand simply outplayed and outclassed us (times like this, I miss the brazenness of Stephan Schröck to tear down the middle and match Charyl Chappuis in the swagger department).

Inasmuch as this loss bites once again (and how we have to wait for another two agonizing years to try and stamp dominance on ASEAN football), the loss to Thailand opens up opportunities for introspection and taking stock of where we are in comparison to the rest of the region (rankings be damned).

When I look back at our tournament, the three key standouts to me were Misagh Bahadoran, Patrick Reichelt, and Amani Aguinaldo.

Misagh Bahadoran received a lot of love from me on Twitter, but while he lacks the killer instinct in the final third and his decision-making skills have been suspect, you can’t fault the guy for trying. In all the years I’ve watched this guy on the pitch, this is probably the tournament where you can say he’s tried his darndest.

Patrick Reichelt, to me, has posed a greater scoring threat than Phil Younghusband, and this super-sub role fits him well.

As for Amani Aguinaldo, the boy has grown into a man in this tournament, and he is definitely the future of our aging backline. When fans of other nations in the tournament go the extra mile to intimidate this player (and when the opposing team all makes a go for him, expecting him to crack), in a sense, this is a good sign that they are taking him seriously.

Let me go back to Liverpool for a bit here. When my Reds crashed out the Champions League, Steven Gerrard essentially pointed out that Liverpool did not crash because of that one home game at Anfield versus Basel. The situation that they put themselves in—a must-win game at home—was the result of several games where they could have ended in better results for themselves. I can’t help but feel the same way for the Azkals—we put ourselves in a situation where we could not win against the likes of Thailand or Vietnam and botched our chances of winning at home by fluffing two or so really good chances to score.

That said, the game versus Thailand gives us much room to learn from the rest of the region. Two years ago, the likes of Teerasil Dangda and Theeraton Bunmathan captivated us. Those big names are absent now, replaced by the likes of Chanathip Songkrasin (dubbed Messi Jay—and we all saw why at the Rajamangala Stadium) and Swiss-Thai Charyl Chappuis (who I am dubbing the Asian Cristiano Ronaldo, by virtue of his finely shaped eyebrows and copious amounts of hair gel to keep that ‘do in place). To be optimistic that we could win against Thailand by virtue of their strikers unavailable for the return leg was painfully short-sighted. It was Thailand’s midfield that controlled and dominated the game.

Moreover, about half of Thailand’s line-up were carryovers from the U23s, which makes it a strong case for developing local talent.

When I look back at the year that was, I remember being optimistic with a new coach at the helm, young players brought into the fold, and a more attractive, possession-based, passing game. It just seemed to be the foundations to get the silverware that we longed for. Along the way, that optimism has waned for one reason or another (let’s not go there).

If this was the plot of a story, this feels like the denouement already. As for the conclusion—that is too early to say, following a tournament that left us all believing and ending up in the same place as we were before. Will there be swan songs and fresh starts? Part of me hopes so.

Looking forward to the next chance for us to prove that we are even better than ourselves.

(As it appears on Pinoyfootball)

Miracle in Hanoi (Part 2)

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve had more than one not-too-optimistic comments about how the Azkals have prepped for the Suzuki Cup. Even the 4-1 victory over Laos was not enough to quell all the “They could have done better!” nagging thoughts in my head.

That said, this national team acquits itself quite nicely (as if they owe me anything, really). Nay, I’d say they finally got a sense of vindication after finally winning over Indonesia in 80+ years or so of football history. In Hanoi, once again. This miracle surely keeps on rewriting itself.

Finally, they’re inspiring confidence once again.

Resilience, Romansa, ang Gilas, at ang Azkals

Kakagaling ko lang sa isang business conference kung saan ang tema ay, “Building Resilient Communities”. Doon sa conference na iyon, tinalakay ng mga lider ng business, gobyerno, at ng mga NGOs kung ano nga ba ang mga kinakailangan para maging resilient ang isang pamayanan—yung tipong madaling mag-bounce back matapos ang isang pangyayari gaya ng cyclone sa Myanmar, earthquake sa Indonesia, at ni Yolanda sa Pilipinas.

Sa isang bahagi ng conference na iyon, pinagdebatihan ng mga participant kung ang pagbuo ba ng resilient communities ay para sa economic development higit sa lahat.

Sabi ng isang panig, oo naman. Economic development ang enabler ng mga tao. Mas madali silang makakaahon mula sa pinsala, dahil may pera at resources sila. Sabi rin nila, kung mas economically developed ang isang community to begin with, hindi sintindi ang epekto sa kanila ng isang disaster.

Sagot naman ng isang panig, oo, importante ang economic development, pero hindi yun ang dahilan kung bakit bumubuo tayo ng resilient communities. Sabi nila, ang resilience ng isang pamayanan ay dahil kailangan upang pagtibayin ang social fabric—o what keeps the people together, ika nga. Sabi rin nila, ang resilience ay hindi dahil maraming resources ang isang pamayanan—sila ay resilient dahil may pinanghuhugutang lakas mula sa loob.

Esoteric mang pakinggan, pero pag inisip mo siya sa experience ng mga Pinoy, totoo nga naman. Kahit i-apply mo pa yan sa Gilas at sa Azkals, totoo pa rin.

***

Maraming nagsasabi na dapat tigilan na natin ang lofty ambitions natin sa basketball. Nga naman, higit isang ulo ang lamang ng mga kalaban sa height pa lang. Sa liit nating ito, disadvantaged agad tayo.

Pero ang simplistic lang kasi ng reasoning eh. Nasa kultura at diwa natin ang basketball. Di lang yan dahil kasama siya sa PE classes simula grade school pa lang o dahil ipinapalabas ang NBA, PBA, UAAP, at kahit Eurobasket na rin ngayon sa TV. Yung love affair natin sa basketball, andiyan na, nineteen-forgotten pa. At kung bawat kanto nga ay may makeshift board at halos lahat ng mga Pinoy ay nakapagpamalas ng basketball moves with Air Tsinelas—alam mong hindi sapat yung height argument kung bakit huwag na lang pagpilitan ang basketball.

Masakit panoorin yung apat na laro ng Gilas na yun sa Sevilla. Sabihin n’yo nang kulang sa endgame composure at kung anu-ano pang pwedeng imura, iba pa rin yung ipinamalas na puso eh. Yun yung nagpapaasa sa atin na mananalo tayo—at huli man na upang makapunta sa knockout rounds sa Madrid, hindi mo mamalitiin yung tagumpay laban sa Senegal.

Sa wakas, lahat nung paghihirap at pag-aasa nauwi din sa isang panalo.

Resilient, diba? Dig deep kung sa dig deep. Literal na blood, sweat, and tears ang ibinuhos. Takeaway natin diyan: kaya nating makipagsabayan on the world stage.

***

Eh sa football naman?

Tinopak ako at bumili ng tickets para manood ng Juventus vs. Singapore Selection ilang linggo lang nakakaraan. Sabi ko, ito na ang pagkakataon ko para makita ang genius ni Andrea Pirlo at ang kagwapuhan ni Claudio Marchisio.

Pero hindi ito tungkol dun sa mga Italyano—kahit na, oo, ang galing nila at pinaglaruan lang nila ang Singapore sa score na 5-0.

Tungkol ito dun sa Singapore Sports Hub, yung bagong stadium ng Singapore. Sobrang bongga lang eh. Ang linis. Ang laki. 55,000 o higit pa ang seats. May retractable roof, para kung may delubyo man, tuloy pa rin ang laro. Andaming kiosks ng pagkain—from hotdogs to curry puffs to noodles. Ang linis ng banyo. Yung locker rooms, maikukumpara sa locker rooms ng mga European clubs.

Naisip ko, ang swerte ng iba nating regional counterparts sa football. State-of-the-art ang facilities. Eh sa Rizal Memorial Stadium? Kahit artificial na yung turf, waterlogged pa rin. Dati, itinigil din sila ng game sa lakas ng ulan. Siyempre yung mga maintenance boys, naglabas ng drum, timba, walis, at dustpan para i-scoop out yung tubig. Bongga, diba?

Kung inisip mo yung facilities na available para sa Azkals, walang incentive eh. Talagang para sa bayan yung laro. Sakripisyo pa yan ng jet lag para sa iba. Pero pag tiningnan mo naman sila tuwing ipapatugtog yung Lupang Hinirang, either kinakanta nila yung mga salita o di kaya’y nakapikit ang mata upang maramdaman ang ibig-sabihin ng national anthem.

Kung ikukumpara sa basketball, hindi naman talaga ganun katagal ang love affair natin with football. Wala pa ngang apat na tayon—kung sa isang relationship yan, medyo tanggap mo na kung ano yung mga pagkukulang at mga quirks, pero may gana pa rin yang mangromansa, kasi di pa nagsasawa.

Parang Azkals din yan. Madaming instances na mahuhulog talaga loob mo sa kanila, tapos babalik sa long balls ang laro o tipong may ayaw na naming magpasa ng bola. Frustrating din dahil kulang sa silverware. Sige, may dalawang Peace Cups tayo, pero ano ba naman ang bigat nun. Eh ito ngang sa huli, dapat ikatlong Peace Cup na natin ito, nasungkit pa ng Myanmar.

Reslient din naman sila. Sa apat na taon, naipakilala nila tayo sa football—kahit hindi man ito jogo bonito o tiki-taka, iba pa rin yung nakikita mong hindi sila bumibitaw sa laro, kahit pagod na pagod na sa kakatakbo at kakasemplang sa loob ng 90 minuto.

Kahit yung tatay ko na dati rati’y hindi makaupo sa isang buong football match sa TV dahil wala naman daw nakaka-score, ngayon, mas malakas pa ang sigaw sa akin kada daplis o saved shot ng Azkals.

Naisip ko nga, matapos tayong talunin ng Myanmar, hindi pa rin natin natatalo si Raddy Avramovic (masakit pa rin yung pagkatalo natin sa Singapore nung 2012 Suzuki Cup) at, oo, runners-up na naman tayo sa ikalawang tournament sa taong ito sa ilalim ni Thomas Dooley.

Pero pag inisip mo naman na dati ay whipping boys tayo sa Asya, ngayon umaasa na tayong manalo ng regional tournaments. Resilience din naman yun. Sana lang nga, manalo na sa Suzuki Cup sa pagtatapos ng taong ito.

***

Balik tayo dun sa business conference. Sabi ni Jose Ramos Horta, ang Nobel Peace Prize laureate at dating pangulo ng Timor-Leste, “Resilience stems from adversity.” Sanay na tayo to be at a disadvantage, pero mayroon ding mga pagkakatoon na we surprise ourselves and exceed our expectations.

Ang maganda dun, nowhere to go but up ang direksyon natin, basketball o football pa man yan.

Love, in the time of rain showers and thunderstorms

While going through my photos of the Clear Dream Match 2, I realized I was inadvertently telling a sub-plot. I’m sharing what I had noticed:

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This is Team James, the eventual winners of the Clear Dream Match 2. This team photo was taken prior to kick-off, and while everyone had their (friendly) game faces on, we see Fabio Cannavaro and Misagh Bahadoran in a world by themselves, oblivious to the bright lights and flashes.

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Cue to right before the second half started. Fabs is not very impressed with the state of the waterlogged pitch.

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Misagh, however, is all too happy to see Fabs on the pitch and runs over to him.

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Fabs clearly knows his effect on Misagh.

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Fabs:  “Hey Saba, you’re definitely more confident with me in front of you.”

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Misagh quickly establishes position. Note tactile tactics toward Fabs to ease Saba out of the picture.

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No, Misagh. Lifting your shorts won’t distract Fabs from his main concern—that swamp of a pitch.

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Fabs was all too relieved to be subbed out. That or he was just too happy that they were winning. By the way, Misagh, you snooze, you lose. Saba is a step ahead of you.

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He did get his civil handshake moment with Fabs after all.

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Ah, but look at that face. It is like the face of a fangirl that got her fleeting moment of touching the World Cup champion.

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Regret sinks in. Misagh thinks he should have hugged it out with Fabs instead. Too late, Fabs has moved on to the other teammates.

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All’s well that ends well. Those two were on the winning side, and Fabs is watching after Misagh, who just might fall off the stage in excitement.

***

Yeah, I just had some time on my hands to post this. Also, if you do plan to share these photos elsewhere, I would greatly appreciate it if you drop me a note saying so. It’s only kind, and let’s be friends.

On a more serious note, you can read the Five things we learned from this year’s CLEAR Dream Match here.

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.

Every Photo Has a Story: Football in 2012

Keeping tabs on Philippine football has been a huge part of my hours in 2012, and it’s been a fun and interesting year in stories. Because every photo has a story behind it, I’m sharing my favorite snaps from the year that was—for the fans, fangirls, and the people who’ve shared in the adventures.

Here’s to even more stories in 2013.

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Choosing What to Look At: Post-Suzuki Cup Ramblings and Reflections

(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.