A ride fantastic for Azkals
On Philippine football’s biggest night, an all too familiar feeling filled the air at Rizal Memorial Stadium.
The night that started with plenty of optimism and positivity turned into stress and anxiety as the Philippine Azkals’ dream of reaching the AFC Asian Cup for the first time was slowly fading away when a familiar foe in Tajikistan took the lead in the 64th minute.
From my vantage point on the commentators’ booth, it was tough to see the team that I had the privilege of covering extensively since 2010 once again on the brink of falling short. The Tajikistan goal almost sucked the life out of the stadium and put a dent on the Azkals’ morale.
Only three players from that 2010 team that pulled off the “Miracle in Hanoi” were in the squad this time—Phil and James Younghusband and Neil Etheridge—while one of the heroes of the Suzuki Cup tournament that year, Chris Greatwich, was on the bench.
The Azkals, taking the last of three cracks at making the AFC Asian Cup for the first time, are on the ropes again, a goal down against a Tajikistan team that had been unfazed by a huge crowd.
From Vietnam to the Maldives to North Korea, the Azkals chased for respectability and recognition and felt the huge burden of lifting up the sport that had been in the background in the Philippines for so long. Every game felt like it was the last, knowing the fate of the sport in the country always depended on the result they delivered.
So when the Azkals fell behind on this Tuesday night, every Filipino football fan braced for the worst.
In truth, the Azkals should have already qualified two matches ago after rolling to two straight wins and getting a point against Yemen.
But three straight draws left them with a tricky task of needing another stalemate in Manila against the Tajiks, who can qualify with a victory.
“When they scored their first goal, I think that spurred us to play our best because we knew we needed to attack, we needed to score,” Phil said.
“It’s always a difficult feeling going to a game knowing you don’t need to win, but it showed the spirit of the Filipino people, the fighting spirit. Even when we’re down, we can bounce back and I think we showed and typified it.”
Younghusband instigated the comeback with a through ball to Iain Ramsay, who then found Kevin Ingreso for a header that will live long in the memory of Philippine football fans.
“We kept on pushing forward,” said Ingreso. “We knew we had chances and we knew we can press them.”
To cap off a fairytale ride, Phil sealed the win from the penalty spot after Patrick Reichelt was fouled inside the area in stoppage time. It was Phil’s 50th international goal and it could not have come at a better time for the Azkals skipper.
“For me, the feeling of going to the Asian Cup, that’s what matters to me,” Phil said.
“Like I said, if it came from this game or in 10 games’ time, that wasn’t on my mind. It was about getting the win.”
“If we’d won with my own goal, that would’ve meant more for me. To have the feeling at the same time makes it more special. I can’t believe the work everyone’s put in for this moment and all those moments when people were doing extra runs, extra stretching, families are helping each other, it’s all for this moment. It’s all worth it.”
Phil said the win cemented the legacy of the golden generation of players who have suited up for the country in the past decade.
From the Armed Forces players like Chieffy Caligdong, Yanti Barsales and Ian Araneta to Rob Gier, Juani Guirado and Jerry Lucena, Phil said everyone deserved as much credit for putting Philippine football where it is today.
“Everyone who has been a part of this, I just feel very blessed that I get to play the sport I love and enjoy it in a country I love,” said Phil. “I don’t think about the legacy. I’m just happy about these moments. It was unbelievable.”
“That’s what we’ve hoped for. Just looking up when we’re 1-nil down and they’re cheering us for every tackle, every header, every shot, that was the difference for us coming back. All the players are so appreciative of everyone who watched and supported.”
Etheridge put things in perspective.
“It’s a massive moment for Filipino football,” said the Cardiff City stopper. “It’s been 10 years in the making since I started. It’s a fantastic journey—highs and lows. Hopefully, the Philippines will kick on football and obviously the national team as well.”
The 28-year-old said the country had to be realistic with qualifying for the World Cup, although he hopes picking up milestones like qualifying for the Asian Cup inspires the younger generation of players.
Azkals manager Dan Palami waxed emotional as he looked back on the Azkals’ journey that included three heartbreaking AFF Suzuki Cup semifinal losses to the defeat in the Challenge Cup Finals four years ago.
“We’ve not always been successful, but to make it to the bigger stage, after all those heartaches, its fulfilling,” Palami said. “It’s a feeling that can’t be described. We are able to achieve a lot of things because of our perseverance. We showed the heart of the Azkals.”
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