The Luck of the Draw(s)

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

 

If there was a moment in time when a supporter of the Philippine men’s national football team could step back and think of just how far the Azkals have gone since the team shot to superstardom, it has to be June 2012—when the boys finally proved they were no longer the underdogs coming into matches versus regional powerhouses Malaysia and Indonesia.

 

The good thing about friendly matches is that these allow for a bit of experimentation, especially in view of upcoming regional competitions later in the year. The friendlies with Malaysia and Indonesia heralded glimpses of what many believe is the strongest line-up of the Philippines in recent memory.

 

Despite a grandiose label, the Azkals only managed a draw against either team. Such results beg for questions—What went right? More importantly, what could stand to be further improved?

 

Against Malaysia, the Philippines were without the services of Phil and James Younghusband, as well as Neil Etheridge, who served a one-match suspension. Etheridge was hardly missed, as Roland Müller showed us what he can do, having a stellar game against the Malaysians.

 

The Philippines came out in the first half electrified, thanks largely to the presence of Stephan Schröck, who was just all over the place to create trouble for the Malaysians. Apart from the quality that Schröck brings to the team, what can never be ignored is the swag he brings. There is no denying that the man plays without fear of the opponent—he just charges through, seemingly brimming with the confidence to win. (Now if only we had his services more often for the national team.)

 

If the first half of the Malaysia-Philippines match showed a high level of energy in the first half, this was not sustained in the second. Bad calls aside, the Malaysians made some adjustments in the second half to frustrate both Schröck and Angel Guirado, effectively snuffing out any threats for the Philippines to score goals. There were times when it felt as if Schröck was running onto a brick wall, with the Malaysians eventually dispossessing him.

 

As for Guirado, he was adequately covered by at least two Malaysian defenders near the touchline. This was when one would have missed the crosses of James Younghusband, who would manage the feed the ball to the strikers—something that was found wanting with Guirado utilized on the right wing.

 

One other thing to note during the Malaysia-Philippines match is that the Azkals were considerably outpaced by the Harimau Malaya, especially in the second half. While the Azkals’ conditioning has improved from their performances last year, how they could keep up with other (stronger) teams, especially in the last 30 minutes of a match, may become a critical factor.

 

Moreover, the Philippines’ defense was found wanting. Perhaps the Azkals had lady luck on their side, since Malaysia couldn’t properly finish, failing to find the net in their shots, even with their second wave of attackers.

 

Whether one supported Malaysia or the Philippines, a goalless draw was frustrating for both sides, given all the chances to score. Perhaps this was even more frustrating for Malaysia than it was for us, given that they had the momentum in the final third of the game, launching waves of attacks at the Azkals’ backline.

 

This then set the stage for a team that was hungrier to win at home.

 

Proving a Point

The match against Indonesia was billeted at “the home game that never was”, yet it hardly felt like that. For one, Indonesia’s line-up had dramatically changed, with only three holdovers from the 2010 Suzuki Cup—Irfan Bachdim, Markus Maulana, and Okto Maniani. The rest of the Indonesian national team is from the Indonesian Premier League, with nobody over the age of 25 (even this situation is an indication of the issues within Indonesia’s football association, but let’s not go there).

 

In contrast, the Philippines’ starting line-up had Müller, Carli de Murga, Rob Gier, Jason Sabio, Dennis Cagara, Marwin Angeles, Manny Ott, Angel Guirado, Paul Mulders, Chieffy Caligdong, and Denis Wolf. Consider the substitutes: Neil Etheridge, Misagh Bahadoran, James Younghusband, Phil Younghusband, Jerry Lucena, and Jason de Jong. It is as strong as it could get.

 

The Philippines dominated possession in the first half, threatening Indonesia’s goalkeeper Maulana (who is a strong contender for a Best Actor Oscar, isn’t he?) several times, before Indonesia finally tested Müller at around the 40th minute. The first half also saw an enterprising Dennis Cagara, in his third cap for the Philippines.

 

As experimental as the line-up could get, there were positives and points for improvement. Sure, we finally have a semblance of a passing game, yet we lacked the creativity and the connection in the final third to convert our chances into goals.  Both the matches against Malaysia and Indonesia further showed that the midfield has to connect better with the forwards to create opportunities to score.

 

For all the confidence that the Philippines could muster, it was Indonesia that drew the first blood, with Patrick Wanggai scoring in a counterattack. James Younghusband almost immediately leveled the score, before Irfan Bachdim restored Indonesia’s lead, following a defensive lapse from the Azkals.

 

Bachdim’s goal seemed to have thrown the Azkals off their game, as the team played catch-up in the last 30 minutes of the match (a seemingly familiar scenario?). Things were not about to get any easier as bedlam ensued, resulting to red cards for Bachdim, Caligdong, and Ott.

Despite being down to nine men, the Azkals continued to keep up with Indonesia in pace, and the resilience paid off, with Phil Younghusband scoring a late goal to have the match end in 2-2 draw.

 

It may have been quite an electrifying game (scuffles included), but the results left some Azkals supporters disappointed (this one included).

 

A More Menacing Bite Needed

At the post-match press conference, Phil Younghusband remarked, “I think you’ve seen today just how much we’ve grown since 2010. We were in control of the ball. We dictated the tempo of the game. I think we’ve learned more about how far we’ve gone in the last two years, and how we are favorites. I mean, before the game, we were favorites, whereas two years ago, we were never the favorites.”

 

He was spot-on in his assessment. Still, there’s a long way to go if the Azkals were to emerge victorious in the upcoming Suzuki Cup.

 

I asked Irfan Bachdim if he considered the match versus the Philippines as the beginnings of a new regional rivalry. “Rivalry is such a big word,” he stated. “I think our rivalry is more with Malaysia.”

This is indicative of what the Azkals need to work on. Against Indonesia, our powerhouse line-up failed to stamp its authority over a young team that didn’t have the likes of Cristian Gonzales. Sure, the respect level has significantly increased, but we have yet to instill intimidation in our opponents—and this will come once we start winning against them. (Not through a “You’re in our house now” banner—which would have been more effective if we had an 80,000-seater stadium filled to the rafters and cheering non-stop for the Azkals.)

 

There’s still one more friendly lined up for the Azkals this June, against Guam in Panaad Stadium, Bacolod City. After two disappointing draws, expectations are high for the former underdogs to secure a convincing win.

 

We’ve come a long way, but this building and experimenting process is far from over.

Chilling with Carli de Murga: On Azkals, panget music, and great literature

Originally posted on InterAKTV.

Carli de Murga does not consider himself a role model for little kids wanting to do well in football.

“I think that I am not especially the role model to look up to, because there are things that I have done well and others not so well,” de Murga explains in Spanish. “To be a good football player, one must do everything well.”

It’s quite a contrast for the surroundings of where this interview took place. It was a bright and sunny late April morning, and the European International School (EIS) Football Cup was in full swing. De Murga, together with Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss and fellow players Chieffy Caligdong, Misagh Bahadoran, and Patrick Reichelt, was invited to grace the event.

Around us, a couple of highly competitive football matches among boys aged 7 to 13 years old are in full swing, with their parents cheering on.

While he doesn’t see himself as a role model, de Murga acknowledges the importance of gracing football events for young kids. “We help promote football among the little kids,” he says in heavily accented English. “Now, football is developing in the Philippines and in a few years, we hope it would take big steps and reach higher levels.”

Carli de Murga has momentum on his side, enjoying regular appearances for club and country since arriving in the Philippines from Cadiz, Spain in late 2011. This right back has shown smarts, skills, and a commendable work rate on the pitch.

Today, off the pitch, he’s just chilling under a tree, taking in everything behind a very hipster pair of shades. Our interview is a smattering of English and Spanish, a rather unusual mix in this part of the world — even I thought this would be a bit of a struggle.

When asked what the most challenging aspect of relocating to the Philippines was, he says, “The weather… and I have a big problem with the traffic.” And the food? “I like Filipino food!” he exclaims. “In Spain, my mom cooks Filipino food for me.”

It’s easier, however, to get de Murga talking when we’re talking about the more personal aspects of football. He’ll openly share his experiences, his preferences, and will even dish out a secret or two about his teammates.

“When I arrived back in Spain (from the Philippines), I found in my place a Filipino community that had shirts with my name, and they had a fan club called Carli’s Angels,” he shares, disclosing the best thing his supporters have done for him.

“I’m very excited to play against China in June,” he chatters away. “I heard the head coach of China is Spanish. He was previously the coach of the Spanish national team and of Real Madrid.”

“Jose Antonio Camacho?” I venture.

“Yes, Camacho,” he agrees. “He’s a very good coach.”

(Editor’s note: The planned friendly against China has been cancelled, with the Azkals taking on Guam instead.)

When asked what else he hopes the Azkals would achieve in 2012, de Murga responds without missing a beat, “The Suzuki Cup, I want to win that.”

I asked if he also thinks his club, Global FC, would win the United Football League, he says: “Yes, I think… I cannot say that we’ll win the UFL, but we’re going to do our best to maintain our position. If we don’t have too many injuries, we have a strong team, and we’ll get there.” He added that Loyola and Stallion are Global’s toughest competitions in the league.

De Murga breaks into laughter when asked about having to replace Neil Etheridge in the Azkals’ AFF Challenge Cup semifinal match versus Turkmenistan, after the Philippines’ first-choice goalkeeper was handed a red card for kicking Gahryman Chonkayev.

“I really like playing as a goalkeeper,” he says animatedly. “In Spain, when I go to play with my friends, I always play as a goalkeeper, because I can’t get injured. They say I’m a good goalkeeper!”

“When Neil got the red card, I thought, ‘This is my time!’” he laughs. “I could finally show my goalkeeping qualities!”

It may not be surprising to display such versatility. After all, de Murga grew up in a land where football is part and parcel of the culture, but his reasons for picking up the sport is just right at home.

“I started playing because of my brother,” he shares. “He taught me and brought me to games. He’s the reason I got into football.” And as with any Spaniard that treasures the romanticism in football, de Murga supports FC Barcelona. “They won’t win La Liga this year,” I jabbed. “No, no, no, we cannot win always,” he responds, taking it good-naturedly.

Being a Culé, one must wonder as to which player de Murga looks up to. He is quick to identify Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi as the players he admires, but upon prodding, the first football shirt that he owned was a Barcelona kit with Pep Guardiola’s name at the back.

De Murga also opens up about his teammates. When asked who is más inteligente (the smartest), he pauses and says, “Yu Hoshide.” The best dressed? “Sorry, I don’t know.” He also goes on to explain why Angel Guirado has the worst taste in tunes — which teammate Misagh Bahadoran describes as panget music. “He always listens to party music… like David Guetta.”

Now this begs the question, what music does Carli de Murga listen to? “I listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles.” Impressive, if you ask me.

De Murga also dishes on a question that many Global FC fans may have asked at one point. Who takes the longest in the shower? “Me and Angel,” he quickly responds, eliciting laughter from those that heard the answer.

If there’s one thing that could be gleaned from spending a few minutes with Carli de Murga, it’s the fact that it’s hard to place him in a box. He’s the right back that enjoys donning the goalkeeper’s gloves, the Culé that actually said a Madridista coach was very good, and the football player that enjoys a good book.

“Do you have a favorite book? Líbro? “Matar un ruiseñor,” he shares. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. “It is a favorite of my dad’s, and I was young when I first read it.”

A bagful of surprises, indeed.

Fields of Dreams and For This Younghusband, A Vision for the Future

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

If further proof was needed to substantiate the claim that football in the Philippines was here to stay, it is the fact that Chelsea FC, one of England’s top-flight football clubs, has partnered with Phil and James Younghusband’s The Younghusband Football Academy (TYFA) to open a soccer school in the country.

While the official launch of the Chelsea Soccer School is still on May 15, Chelsea FC Soccer School summer camps for boys and girls, implemented by TYFA, will begin this April.

Paul Kam, Chairman of ProEvents, which handles Chelsea’s events and activities in Asia and which has had business relations with the club since 1995, shared that this initiative is part of Chelsea’s “Here to Play, Here to Stay” campaign. This campaign is testament to Chelsea’s continued engagement with its supporters throughout Asia, as well as its commitment to developing football in the region.

A key component of the “Here to Play, Here to Stay” campaign is Blue Pitch, jointly implemented by Chelsea and ProEvents, which is the club’s grassroots football development in Asia. As its name suggests, Blue Pitch is an artificial blue turf intended to provide opportunities for children to play football, in partnership with local entities and Chelsea’s football coaches.

“In 2008, when my company handled Chelsea’s Asia Tour, we asked what legacy program could be introduced to the countries that Chelsea visited,” shared Kam, pointing out that youth development was the apparent answer.

“I’m very happy to have the brothers support this and have the Blue Pitch in the Philippines,” he added. “This is a very unique partnership for us.” Kam also shared that there would be about six to seven Blue Pitches in Asia by next year, and this could give birth to other activities such as football exchange programs and tournaments for children.

For their part, the Younghusband brothers expressed gratitude for being approached by Chelsea for such an opportunity.

“We’re over the moon, and we’re excited for the future of football,” remarked Phil Younghusband at the press conference announcing the establishment of the Chelsea FC Soccer School. “It is a milestone for Philippine football, but hopefully, this is the start of something promising and exciting.” He added that in their experience with the Chelsea academy, the club not only teaches kids to be good football players, but to be good people as well.

Meanwhile, James Younghusband revealed more than just gratitude at the prospects of even doing more for Philippine football.

“Me and my brother, we’ve had our ups and downs in the Philippines when it comes to football,” James candidly revealed. “But this (Chelsea FC Soccer School) is a big step for Philippine football, and we’re really proud to be part of it. We really want to help young kids to go onto achieving great things for the country through football.”

At the sides of the press conference, James further expounded on his thoughts. “Football has changed a lot since we first came to the Philippines,” he continued. “We wanted to get involved with the national team, and that was our way of promoting the sport. It worked out quite well in the end with the Azkals. Obviously, the interest increased, and we had a lot of people wanting to get involved.”

“But then, you have to think about the opportunity. Is there a place for players to play?” he said. “We want to bring the artificial turf concept here and give the kids a place to play at. That’s the way the Philippines can improve.”

“Each kid, when they start off, they have the same ability as the kids in Europe,” he pointed out. “But the kids in Europe play more football. That’s what we want to do here.”

When asked if this partnership between TYFA and Chelsea FC felt like a full circle of sorts, James flashed that trademark lopsided boyish grin of his and agreed, going on to reveal his dream for grassroots football development in the country: “My dream is to have a football facility everywhere in the Philippines—the capital, the north, the south. We don’t want to limit it to Manila, we want to go out to the provinces.”

It isn’t far-fetched to think that Chelsea’s Blue Pitches may just find the next top-flight right winger for the Azkals, and as for James Younghusband, he would probably be all too satisfied to have been a part of finding and developing the Philippines’ next generation of football heroes.

Of Azkals and Adversity Quotients

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

Of Azkals and Adversity Quotients: A Look at the Team’s Run in the AFC Challenge Cup

The Philippine national football team came into the group stages of the AFC Challenge Cup with modest expectations, simply hoping to reach the semifinals. This initially seemed like a gargantuan task, given that the Azkals were grouped with nations that have previously won the tournament—North Korea, India, and Tajikistan. Such is a path of adversities.

It is easy to take the boys’ performances in a vacuum and rate them solely on how they fared against each opponent. However, in view of other recent events and external factors, it seems only fitting to step back and take a look at the social contexts where another fairy tale-like performance from the Azkals is set against.

Dr. Paul Stoltz, a thought leader on the science of mindset, introduced the concept of Adversity Quotient and defined it as “the capacity of the person to deal with the adversities of his life. As such, it is the science of human resilience.” Dealing with the challenges that lay ahead then expects for a mindset of overcoming them, of winning, of bouncing back. In a manner of speaking, take it as a lens through which the team’s performance could be seen.

At about the same time the team left for Nepal, Cristy Ramos’ sexual harassment complaint against Angel Guirado Aldeguer and Lexton Moy grabbed the headlines. Much has been said about the matter, but for the purposes of this piece, it is not far-fetched to think that such serious allegations have affected the collective psyche of the team.

Without intending to belittle the gravity of the sexual harassment complaint, it has presented another challenge to the Azkals—one that goes as far as questioning their raison d’être (recall the comments of why they had the gall to be allegedly crass when they haven’t even won anything yet).

And respond to the challenge the boys did.

 

The story in Nepal thus far

Despite a 2-0 loss to North Korea, the Azkals displayed a decent performance, holding strong onto defense for most of the match. Perhaps it was in the most unfortunate of circumstances when the Philippine defense had lapses that North Korea capitalized on. The opponents’ first goal was a result of Pak Nam Chol left unmarked, and second from Jang Kuk Chol taking advantage of Neil Etheridge momentarily fumbling as he attempted to clear the ball.

To Etheridge’s credit, he had made eight saves in the match, including one crucial save against Pak Song Chol, who had to retake a penalty due to encroachment.

Following the loss to North Korea and taking into consideration the results of the other matches in the group, the Azkals were faced with a “must-win” situation if they were to meet their objective.  More importantly, the performance against North Korea made the boys believe that they can play with teams ranked significantly higher than them and created a momentum that they could ride on, going into the match against India.

If anything, this line-up of the Philippine national football team realized its potential versus India, with a total team effort delivering a 2-0 win—and the margins could have been even higher.

Phil Younghusband scored a brace in the match, even combining with his brother James for some passing work through India’s defense to grab the second goal.  India seemed to be more determined to score in the second half, but the Blue Tigers were just not threatening enough, and the Azkals’ defense secured the ball from India’s strikers.

At various points of the match, Chieffy Caligdong, Paul Mulders, Angel Guirado Aldeguer, Misagh Bahadoran, and James Younghusband all provided scoring threats. Carlie de Murga, Rob Gier, Jason Sabio, Ray Jonsson, and Juani Guirado (moved up to the midfield) all provided adequate defensive cover.

The win versus India placed the Philippines in the same spot as Tajikistan, its next opponent, tying both in points and goal difference. This presented another “must-win” situation—and nobody in their right minds would want to settle for a draw, since penalty shootouts are the worst ways to determine the outcome of a match.

Versus Tajikistan, the Philippines proved it could match the Central Asians on the pitch. Both teams were pretty even at the first half, having been presented with opportunities to score. Tajikistan scored the opening goal from a corner kick right at the stroke of halftime—and awarding that was as controversial as it could possibly get.

Despite the deficit leading into the second half, the combination of Angel Guirado Aldeguer and Phil Younghusband yielded the equalizer, with the latter scoring. The former also literally rose to the occasion for the Philippines’ second goal, heading the ball over defender Alexey Negmatov. The win effectively made the Philippines meet its objective of reaching the semifinals and booking a match versus Turkmenistan.

That semifinal match versus Turkmenistan did not come without its own inherent challenges. James Younghusband and Angel Guirado Aldeguer were ruled out for incurring their second yellow cards in the previous match, while Jason Sabio, a lynchpin on the back line, was out due to injury.

Despite a decimated line-up, the Azkals took the early lead in the match, with a Phil Younghusband header off an assist from Paul Mulders. This, however, would be eventually negated in the last ten or so minutes of the match, with Arslanmyrat Amanov left open to strike the ball cleanly on the bottom right post. The heartbreak was realized when Gahrymanberdi Chonkayev beat Roel Gener, Juani Guirado, and Neil Etheridge to score Turkmenistan’s second goal. Compounding the Philippines’ concerns was Etheridge being sent off for kicking Chonkayev.

 

Personifying resilience, what it means to be a Filipino

Not all is lost for the Azkals. Despite the heartbreaking loss to Turkmenistan, the boys still have to battle it out versus Palestine for third place on Monday. The red card to Neil Etheridge means that the Philippines’ first-choice goalkeeper has to sit out of the match, but has since taken responsibility for his actions—a sign of a young player maturing under the spotlight, and who, by all indications, would probably wear the captain’s armband in the years to come.

A win would still be a fitting cap to a string of performances that displayed remarkable progress for a national team that has been dogged by controversies—including one that stemmed from a careless remark by a morning show anchor on local television, alleging that they are not Filipino (this is a sanitized version of what was actually said, which is perhaps gravely insulting to Filipinos with mixed ancestry and those Filipinos that have made inter-racial homes).

Such racist and derogatory remarks, as the official statement of the said anchor and subsequently, his television network, were taken out of context and that they were stated in reference to the sexual harassment complaint. In view of these, there are a few important things to point out: 1) race, ancestry, and cultural background should not have been used to discuss the sexual harassment complaint—it would have been more instructive to discuss the merits of the case once hearings before the proper tribunal would be set, and that the public would hear what each side had to say; and 2) for a media person with some level of stature and a leading television network, owning up to the racist and derogatory comments does not, in any way, compromise their stand on the sexual harassment complaint and neither does it diminish the validity of the said complaint.

If anything, the second external issue surrounding the Azkals has galvanized both the team and the supporters. There have been extended discourses on what it means to be a Filipino, but for the national football team, it is simply this—regardless of their ancestry, they have made a choice to represent the Philippines in the international stage, and they have made remarkable strides in making the region respect them for their skills, their teamwork, and the will to win in each match.

They say to be a Filipino is to overcome challenges and adversities given any situation, to show resilience and strength of character. They may be flawed and far from perfect, but judging by how the Azkals performed in the AFC Challenge Cup, they have personified what it means to be a Filipino.

And regardless of the outcome versus Palestine in the battle for third, the boys have already proven themselves. All that’s left for the rest of us is to continue rallying behind the team, so as not to lose sight of the progress that they’ve made since.

Midweek Football Hat-Trick!

Amidst a rather insane week at work (I promise to find time to write properly soon), I scored a midweek football hat-trick, recording three straight wins for teams I root for.

First up, the Azkals. The boys in blue (white? I’m not even sure what our colors are anymore, let alone the kit makers) beat Tajikistan 2-1. I wasn’t able to catch the game live (yes, work has been insane), but I was getting SMS updates. Tajikistan scored the opening goal at the stroke of halftime, while our boys lived up to the Azkals moniker by fighting their way back, with Phil Younghusband scoring at the 54th minute and Angel Guirado Aldeguer cinching the winner at the 80th minute.

The boys are through to the semifinals of the AFC Challenge Cup, and that’s quite a milestone for this team. Onward and upward, Pilipinas!

Second, the Merseyside Derby was not televised owing to a late schedule in England, hence it was about 4 a.m. Manila time. The most important point to note is that Liverpool won, owing to a Steven Gerrard hat-trick. Now that is just a great way to bounce back after two consecutive losses post-Carling Cup victory.

While I didn’t catch it live, I was able to get a copy of the match, and yes, I had tears in my eyes watching Stevie’s goals. Superb work rate from the boys, and even Luis Suarez was unselfish for the third goal. Now that’s how you win.

Photos of course, are in order.

 

Lastly, Real Madrid are through to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League, beating CSKA Moscow on the return leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, 4-1 (5-2 on aggregate). Madrid’s goals came from all three forwards, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, and Karim Benzema. Kaka and Mesut Ozil were also stellar in this match.

Gotta leave you all with some nice Portuguese backs.

 

A note for International Women’s Day.

Much has been said over the controversy surrounding Cristy Ramos’ sexual harassment complaint against Lexton Moy and Angel Guirado of the Azkals. If anything, much of what has been said gives me a great deal of discomfort.

I’ve explained it here: What is sexual harassment? On Sofia, Cristina, and the Woman Question.

There are matters that are black and white, and there are matters that fall under different shades of gray. Obviously, multiple contexts must be taken into account in arriving at a decision that would resolve this matter.

My only hope is that the raging debate should at least allow us, collectively, to revisit our norms, particularly in how men and women deal with each other. What is the norm is not always right. What is accepted is not always fair.

I will not pass judgment on the men in question, but this is what I know—in everyday situations, women are made to feel inferior because they are women. These can be apparent like having smaller salaries than their male counterparts. This can be as subtle as the language we use and how we have a hundred variations to curse someone because their mother went to bed with who knows to bore them. This can be as silent as staying in the dark and not speaking out that they were sexually violated, because of fear, because of shame, because they cannot openly discuss their bodies.

If only our society is one that easily comes to terms with our shortcomings, maybe then, we can slowly stamp out ignorance.

***

For women everywhere, there still are a lot of proverbial glass ceilings to break through. Here’s to the women that study hard, work hard, play hard, and raise families. There’s one day in the year to celebrate womanity.

Everything but the Win and then Some

Originally posted in Pinoyfootball.

I will be the first to admit that I rate the Harimau Malaya (Malayan Tigers) highly. While I only saw their finals matches versus Indonesia in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, I managed to see the Malaysia XI, made up of mainstays from the national team and stars from the Malaysia Super League, when they took on Arsenal and Liverpool in Kuala Lumpur back in July 2011.

 

While Malaysia XI failed to score against Arsenal, they managed to showcase the quality of Malaysian football when they scored three goals against Liverpool, including one screamer of a goal from captain Safiq Rahim from a free kick, which Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Jones had no prayer of saving.

 

Since that goal, I have nothing but a high level of respect for the Southeast Asian champions. (Plus, I am a big fan of the Ultras Malaya’s unwavering snare and bass drum beats, which resemble a tiger on the hunt for its prey.)

 

An international friendly between the reigning AFF Suzuki Cup champions and our national team that was riding on the wave of a couple of solid performances in their Middle East tour should then make for one interesting match.

 

Perhaps it was the fact that this was not Malaysia’s strongest line-up or perhaps it was the absolutely deplorable conditions of the Rizal Memorial Stadium pitch, but the Tigers that showed up in the first half against the Azkals were reminiscent of the Malaysia XI that faced Arsenal—playing catch-up and looking tentative.

 

On the flipside, the Philippines had more opportunities to score, with Phil Younghusband, Angel Guirado, and even Jason de Jong testing Malaysian goalkeeper Mohd Farizal Marlias in the first half. The breakthrough for the Philippines came on the 34th minute, with Denis Wolf’s header eluding Marlias. Equal credit must go to the vastly improved Jason Sabio, whose throw-ins have proven to be quite dangerous.

 

The second half treated the 7,000- to 8,000-strong crowd to a few more opportunities by the Azkals, including Angel Guirado’s displays of technique and skills (if only those shots came in!). Malaysia also had more chances on goal in the second half. Luckily, it was not the best of nights for Safee Sali, who is usually dangerous when given enough room to take a shot—credit the Philippines’ defense for frustrating him for the most part.

 

Malaysia made some key substitutions in the second half, including the entry of Ahmad Shakir Mohd Ali, who scored the equalizer (and his second international goal for Malaysia) in the 91st minute, off an assist by Safee Sali. If anything, his goal proved a point as to why the Harimau Malaya are the regional champions.

 

In the post-match press conference, Datuk K. Rajagopal, Malaysia’s head coach, praised his team’s attitude for never giving up, despite the aggressive showing of the Azkals. He added that this match also forms part of their preparations in building a stronger side and a deeper line-up in view of upcoming tournaments, including the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup, which Malaysia is co-hosting later in the year.

 

They say the final scoreline never tells the entire story all the time. I’ll bluntly put it and say that 1-1 was pretty disappointing, considering the strong showing of the Azkals.

 

In the lead-up to this match, there has been much talk about the composition of the squad, especially the line-up that will face North Korea, India, and Tajikistan in the AFC Challenge Cup about a week from now. The reality that Coach Hans Michael Weiss faces is that there is much uncertainty in terms of the actual personnel that he could utilize for international competition—and a whole slew of factors contributes to this, including injuries, club commitments, and maintaining the chemistry of the squad. Coach Weiss hinted that this is more or less the line-up that he is looking to work with for the AFC Challenge Cup, and these underscore a few things:

 

First, Denis Wolf provides another attacking dimension to the Philippines’ game, which had been previously missing. For all the love surrounding Phil Younghusband, he cannot be the lone attacking force in international competitions. Wolf has impressed with his speed and work ethic since debuting for the Azkals in January.

 

Second, Neil Etheridge is by far our best bet on goal. He is the goalkeeper that keeps their defenders on their toes and has an acute understanding of his role in and value to the national team, perhaps indicators of his growth as a player. For all the fire and fight that the big guy shows on the pitch, his mere presence does have a calming effect for the Azkals’ supporters.

 

Third, Lexton Moy is an unsung hero. The shortest guy on the pitch may not be the most talented out there, but he certainly is one of the hardest working ones. While the midfield generally needs more teeth in the absence of some key players, Moy has shown scrappiness to fight for the ball, and when he has it, he makes some very smart passes.

 

Fourth, Jason Sabio has shown tremendous improvement as a player. Despite being outplayed by Ahmad Shakir Mohd Ali in extra time (an unfortunate slip that led to the equalizing goal), Sabio has come out to prove that he is a capable replacement in the absence of Aly Borromeo at center-back. This is a far cry from the player that made gaping mistakes against Kuwait and Mongolia—the current version has looks more fit and shows more smarts on the pitch.

 

Fifth, the defensive line needs to have more playing time together. The back four made up of Carlie de Murga, Jason Sabio, Juan Luis Guirado, and Ray Jonsson are a relatively solid unit, despite having limited playing time together. It can only get even more cohesive with the increased playing time that they are expected to get.

 

Sixth, the midfield remains to be an experiment. The match versus Malaysia had Lexton Moy and Jason de Jong partnered in the midfield for the first time together, and this hasn’t paid off much. More stability is needed in the midfield (especially in view of a potentially explosive Jason de Jong), and the team has to reach a level where it should be playing with more ball possession.

 

Seventh, while the Starting XI may be the most strategic choice that the Philippines have given the limited number of available personnel, the depth of the bench may present a cause for concern for the Azkals when faced with a series of tough opponents in a short period of time. This will definitely be tested in the AFC Challenge Cup.

 

We had everything but the win against Malaysia, but consider it a step forward toward developing the Philippine national team’s strongest side—which we have yet to witness.

 

In the meantime, we have North Korea, India, and Tajikistan to contend with. Onward and upward, you Azkals.

 

As for Malaysia, I look forward to once again hearing your deafening chants and drum beats at the magnificent Bukit Jalil Stadium someday.

Eventually, a Club versus Country Debate and a Team that Played Like a Team

This article appears on Pinoyfootball.com. I suppose it’s my attempt to make sense of the hoopla that surrounded this second charity match. Given its schedule, it’s bound to cause one or two hiccups along the way. (Yet, all things taken into consideration, that was a fine performance from the Philippines XI.)


It is quite interesting that there is now a tinge of the “club versus country” debate in Philippine football, one that has been brought about by a charity match scheduled well into the second week of the United Football League (UFL).

Perhaps it is part of the sport’s growing pains, as the local league aims to move toward increased professionalization—this is, after all, what we had wanted, together with a grassroots program in place. Perhaps it is merely a knee-jerk reaction when it had been finally clear that the Philippines’ line up versus Icheon Citizen F.C. did not include many of the familiar names.

For the uninitiated, the “club versus country” debate has been a long-running concern in football. Simply put, this is a situation where a player is put at the middle of a tug-of-war between club duties and national team duties. This is most evident in European football, where a calendar year is dominated by club fixtures and where clubs invest heavily on their players, thereby having the view that they stand to lose the most if any of their players get injured while playing for the national team.

FIFA has regulations to address the matter, and the most important thing to note is that the release of players by their clubs is mandated for all tournaments listed in FIFA’s International Match Calendar, as well as for matches where the release of players from their clubs is mandated by a special decision of the FIFA Executive Committee.

That said, clubs such as Kaya FC and the Loyola Meralco Sparks are well within their rights to not release players for national team duties on the match versus Icheon Citizen FC—a match that does not meet the requirements of mandating release of players from their clubs.

Sure, the “club versus country” debate is nothing new and will continue, especially as both club football and international football attain new platforms to reach wider audiences and use this as leverage for advertising and marketing efforts. While this debate is quite the norm for countries where club loyalty precedes love for county (in the football sense of the phrase), it is interesting to note that it could potentially be divisive as well for a country like the Philippines, where the football-related attentions and interests are largely hinged on the national team’s matches.

Without demeaning the nobility of the cause of the charity match between the Azkals and Icheon Citizen FC, I really do wish that it had been better timed. Not because I wanted to see the likes of Phil Younghusband in action, but largely because if the schedule had been more, well, rational, it may have been able to attract a greater number of audience members, thereby creating more significant impacts for its beneficiaries, the typhoon Sendong victims.

***

Of course, when the line-up of the national team is missing more than a few familiar names, it may be a reason to get concerned, or not.

It is an interesting look for the Azkals, fielding a starting XI that was made up of Edward Sacapano, Jerry Barbaso, Rob Gier, Nestor Margarse, Roel Gener, Carli de Murga, Angel Guirado Aldeguer, Misagh Bahadoran, Denis Wolf, Chieffy Caligdong, and Ian Araneta. (Note that there are six homegrown players in the starting line-up, which was refreshing by itself.)

One of the benefits of a charity match is that it allows for a bit of experimentation. Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss, in a pre-match interview, noted that “it’s about development”. This set a good stage to test the depth of the squad, to experiment with potential partnerships, and to allow guys that don’t usually get some or any playing time to step up and prove themselves.

I’ll be honest, I actually was more optimistic with the performance of this unit than that of the line-up with the usual starters that faced CF Internacional de Madrid. For one, this Azkals line-up did not look dejected despite conceding a goal in the first half. While the team lacked the finishing and Ian Araneta literally shot for the moon and the stars, the team compensated with fighting for possession of the ball and hustling back on defense to prevent further damage by the South Koreans.

If anything, the Azkals even upped the ante in the second half, looking very dangerous in their attacks. You could sense an equalizer was forthcoming, and given how this team looked like they worked every second of the match (perhaps to emphasize their worth), they deserved an equalizer. Of course, it came well into the 87th minute with a goal from substitute Marwin Angeles, straight through the hands of Icheon Citizen FC’s goalkeeper (honestly, how in Asia-Pacific could that shot be stopped?).

While the Azkals went on to lose 4-2 in a penalty shootout, owing to two sorry misses by Angel Guirado Aldeguer and Carli de Murga, much can be taken from this match with a great deal of enthusiasm. Nestor Margarse was rightly named Man of the Match, being stellar on defense, especially when blocking the shot that could have been Icheon Citizen FC’s second goal. Misagh Bahadoran provided the flair and creative spark on the right flank, which, to my mind, was quite a revelation. Denis Wolf, making his first appearance for the Philippine national team, impressed with his hustle and his drive to score. However, I think that the most important takeaway for this match is that this Azkals unit displayed much cohesion, despite the limited time to prepare—and it did lead to a respectable result. Now all we need is to practice taking penalties.

For what it’s worth, this non-bearing match has led to two significant outcomes: 1) increased funding in support of the typhoon Sendong victims; and 2) the confidence in the knowledge that the Philippines actually has a deep pool of talent that could be made available for future matches of the national team.