If you must go down, go down fighting

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the usherette at the entrance of the Rizal Memorial Stadium said. “You have to sign a waiver.”

“What for?” I asked, confusion written all over my sweaty face. I had just gotten my ticket a couple of minutes ago, managed to evade several TV crews, and explained to Conan the Barbarian Bouncer that my Canon G10 was not a professional camera.

“Your kid,” she says. I whirled around, looking for my “child”. “What kid?!” I exclaimed indignantly, “I am insulted!”

Well, if this was any indication of the load of surprises that was in store for the night, it was a good one.

(Oh wait, the first surprise was actually a ticket on the grandstand. Thank you, benefactor who wishes to remain nameless. I owe you a real cheeseburger.)

I settled into my seat as the line-ups were being called. Pretty soon, the teams were making their way onto the middle of the pitch. It’s a match that has got a lot hanging on it—the miracle of miracles to send the Philippines to the next round of qualifications for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil or the end of the road to Brazil.

That said, it must be noted that in the first half of the match, Kuwait was playing with the Philippines, employing an attacking style of football as well. Kuwait was attacking on the left flank early on (until they decided to bring in that incredibly annoying Arabian Ronaldinho Fahad Al Enezi, the #7, which evened out the attack on both flanks). Waleed Jumah (#15) and Yousef Nasser (#20) were particularly dangerous.

And boy, oh boy, Kuwait’s counterattacks were damn fast, and their movement and passing displayed fluidity. Kuwait also managed to find their way through a relatively solid back four of the Philippines—talk about weaving through tight spaces. If they weren’t just a tad unlucky, that would have been at least two goals from them. Of course, you got to give credit to Neil Etheridge for deflecting a couple of those shots (I did think he had a rather shaky start though—wasted long balls, anyone?).

It’s not as if we had a shortage of chances either. Rob Gier had an attempt on goal with a header as early as the 8th minute (Rob was also solid on defense, displaying his experience against quicker Kuwaiti attackers). I missed the usual monster game from Angel Guirado Aldeguer though. Watching from the grandstand, I felt like he didn’t have his usual ferocity and that his defenders were always beating him to the ball. Also, all his headers were either off the mark or easily saved by Kuwait’s goalkeeper—who just stamped his class on all of the Philippines’ efforts, including attempts by Aly Borromeo at the 38th minute and by Chieffy Caligdong at the 39th.

And then there were Phil Younghusband’s efforts. Where do we start?

Reminiscent of that epic failure in Kuwait, he had a few chances to get to the ball, and when he did, he was easily dispossessed. It was quite frustrating to watch on the couple of times it happened—you know he can never finish singlehandedly. A lack of quality? A lack of smarts? Either way, those chances may have had a different outcome if help was forthcoming. (I was already screaming “Fail Younghusband!” several times.)

Well into injury time in the first half, there was a scrappy Chieffy Caligdong fighting off two defenders to retain possession of the ball, which managed to find itself on Phil Younghusband (one of the few times he decided to run his lazy butt), who fought for the ball, picked up by Stephan Schröck, who shot a screamer that sailed past Kuwait’s goalkeeper—his first goal for the Philippines and more importantly, a goal that kept the country’s hopes alive.

Let me tell you what it was like when that goal was scored. There was a collective display of sheer joy and elation from tens of thousands of fans in the stadium, coming from a relative resignation that holding the opponent to 0-0 was good enough. It’s that spontaneous display of reaction that makes one think, “This is what it feels like to be alive.”

Here’s the thing with miracles. No matter how insurmountable the challenges may be, one must always hope for them (and no matter how Arabian Ronaldinho was massively play-acting and time-wasting, you have to play on and set aside any urges to kick him in the groin). And the Philippine team clearly had this in mind.

Still, much is left to be desired with various aspects of the game of the Philippines. The passing during attacks has been wasted due to miscommunication (of the few times Fail Younghusband decided to pass, he passed to nobody), the battle of the midfield remains to be in Kuwait’s favor, and there were defensive lapses that cost us dearly, especially at the 61st minute, when Yousef Nasser’s attempt did not even get a reaction from the defense—securing the opponents’ first goal, even when they were down to 10 men (Fahad Al Ebrahim was sent off at the 59th minute).

Kuwait started becoming gung-ho on defense in the last 10 minutes of the match, and on the 83rd minute, their counterattacking paid off once more, after Waleed Jumah beat Aly Borromeo, Neil Etheridge, and Ray Jonsson to score Kuwait’s second in an open goal.

It may have been enough to think, “This is what death feels like.” Yet, you can count on the team and its supporters to rally behind what a street dog is all about—it’s being scrappy, resilient, and if it must go down, it must go down fighting. The final scoreline read Philippines 1 – 2 Kuwait, effectively snuffing out Brazilian dreams. I remember seeing Aly Borromeo hunched near the touchline, seemingly in tears. That was a tad heartbreaking to see. (My personal second half highlight? Seeing Rob Gier release some aggression—and rightfully so.)

Putting things into perspective, however, this was a national team that did not even dare compete in the World Cup qualifiers in recent years and were perennial whipping boys in tournaments, and now, here it was, earning the respect of one of Asia’s most powerful teams. I’m not one to easily call small victories “historic”, and there’s a variety of things that supporters believe in, but what I can say is this: These men have made us dream of what this country can achieve, and they should continue to make us dream—this is but the start for clawing, scratching, scampering, and scrapping our way onto the world stage.

Stand tall, stand proud, you Azkals. It’s a long road ahead to attain glory, and you’ve already made those first steps.

Video

He will Schröck you

A proper post soon. For now, let’s relish in that short-lived glory of Schröck’s goal. (P.S. Wow, one of the few instances that Fail Younghusband worked his butt off to get that ball.)

Desert apologetics, momentum, and perhaps, a miracle

It’s not regular fare that I manage to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning to catch the Philippine National Football Team in action (but that I would for Spain, Real Madrid, and, in the few times that it applies, Liverpool). Somewhere between incessant tweeting of match updates and berating that needs to be let out, there will always be a part of me that would want the underdogs to achieve a bit of glory.

That said, I will be the first to admit I wasn’t expecting a win versus Kuwait. Of course, that would be the best case scenario. A draw was a reasonable expectation. Should we lose, we can’t let ourselves be down by more than one goal. In that way, it wouldn’t be too punishing of a mountain to climb on the return leg in Manila.

From the get-go, Kuwait looked like they were out to kill, but give credit to the Philippines for being solid on defense in the first half. Notice how Kuwait turned to their wingers to attack, with focus on the right wing in the first half. Our defense has been solid, with the midfielders tracking back to help out. The team came in the game with the mindset of not conceding goals, hence a highly defensive 4-5-1 set-up.

With the team’s focus on the defensive end, our counter-attacking leaves much to be desired. Case in point, Phil Younghusband beaten on a one-on-one play against Kuwait’s goalkeeper, who had committed forward (this reminded me of Torres’ Euro 2008 goal—if Phil was a half-second quicker, he could have easily lobbed the ball into the Kuwaiti goal, in a flying swan fashion, no less). If I remember correctly, there were two other Kuwaitis closing in on Phil from behind—now this is why it can get rather frustrating when he’s the sole striker up front.

Following that, we had several other chances of scoring, thanks to headers by Angel Guirado Aldeguer (hit the crossbar) and Chieffy Caligdong (cleared by another defender on the right post), as well as a volley from Phil Younghusband (slight touch by the goalkeeper, before it also hit the crossbar).

As the first half ended, I thought that our defense did a pretty good job as to what it had to do, except for that one defensive error that led to Kuwait’s first goal. We had our chances to score and missed, but what was important was that we had those precious chances—an indication that Kuwait may not necessarily have gotten us figured out to a T. If we could only ride on that momentum, we had a pretty good chance of scoring.

But alas, I was dead wrong.

Whatever good we had done in the first half was not there in the second. Perhaps it was the heat and fatigue getting to our players, especially with the wingers getting their work cut out for them. The painful realization hits when Angel Guirado Aldeguer was temporarily wheeled off from the pitch after suffering a knock (santa madre mía de dios, how many pieces will this guy be at the end of the match?), and we seemed to have lost that momentum. Moments later, Kuwait scored their second goal from a mad scramble right in front of the goal (how the hell that got in escapes me). As for Kuwait’s third goal, that was one beauty of a goal—one key moment where we did not properly close out.

Just a few observations:

Someone should really get Phil Younghusband into a professional football club. He needs the added playing time to condition himself. It seems like the only time he maximizes himself is during a match, hence the high risk of injury. Also, Phil, for the love of all things fluffy, pass the damn ball. I do like his hot pink boots, however. They’re so gay, I love them.

Ray Jonsson was stellar at left back. Note how Kuwait looked to attack on the right wing in the first half. They made the adjustments in the second half and attacked on the left wing more, which leaves me to point out…

That prior to the match, we are told that Rob Gier would partner with Anton del Rosario at the back. But lo and behold, surprise, surprise, it’s del Rosario at the right back and Jason Sabio at center back. Guess who exploited that? Sabio, I know you’re a smart cookie, but please do consider prioritizing law school.

Angel Guirado Aldeguer is one hard man. Chieffy Caligdong and James Younghusband sure had their work cut out for them running the flanks.

What I find a bit disturbing, and I know I’m not the only one (if only my Twitter timeline could be heard, it was exploding and imploring for substitution calls), is that there were no substitutions made earlier on in the second half, even when it was apparent that the team was tired and making mistakes. Simon Greatwich and Misagh Bahadoran were put in the game at the start of injury time already, and Greatwich’s contribution was another unnecessary yellow card. Sure, we had a solid game plan for the first 45 minutes, but what happened when the opponent made the adjustments and got us heavily punished for it?

Still, let’s not take away credit to the fact that the Philippines showed that it can play with one of the toughest, biggest powerhouses in Asia, even for 45 minutes. Sure, we’re in a hole that’s about three goals deep, but hey, the Scouser in me will tell you to remember the Miracle in Istanbul.

There’s justification in reasonably believing in miracles in a football. You can have that, because you finally have a national team that can make you believe. It’s a huge deficit to overcome, but those who truly understand would recognize valiant effort when it’s displayed. Brazil is a long way to go, but this really is the start of our dreams on the world stage. Let’s just not lose momentum.