Philippine football memories are dominated by empty arenas and a few followers pouring scorn all over a national team constantly flogged by foreign competition.
Rewind to about this time in 2010, when our country, bannered by a gritty gang called the Azkals, became a shock semifinalist in the AFF Suzuki Cup—Southeast Asia’s most important sports tournament.
Suddenly soccer rose from the dead, scorn turned into support and borderline fans became fanatics, their million-candle power of devotion igniting interest all over the land for the team and their sport.
Spool forward to this Saturday, when the Azkals, honed into razor-sharp precision by the frenetic pace of warmup matches, including a victory over three-time AFF Cup winner Singapore—PH’s first in 40 or so years—open a new glory run.
The Azkals will first face three-time winner Thailand, 2008 champion Vietnam on Nov. 27 and qualifier Myanmar on Nov. 30 in Group A of the 2012 edition of the Cup, the region’s football championship.
About to be shorn of its overseas-based players, it will be interesting to watch the Azkals bring hope and happiness to a bleak and hopeless Philippine sports—a realm run by an old boys’ clique and a skipper with a rudderless ship.
Goalie Neil Etheridge, among the Azkals’ points of light, has reportedly been recalled by his English Premier League club. As I write this, Philippine Football Federation president Nonong Araneta has been unable to confirm this development.
There were also unverified information that several Azkals will miss the early phases of the tournament since their home clubs are not in a releasing mood, the Suzuki being off the Fifa calendar of international events.
But Azkals manager Dan Palami texted me from Thailand that Dennis Cagara of Germany’s Karlsruher SC, midfielder Jerry Lucena, a club footballer in Denmark, and Angel Guirado of the Spanish league are now with the team in Bangkok. Also accounted for are Fil-Dutch footballer Paul Mulder, Fil-Briton Rob Gier, Icelandic–Pinoy Ray Jonsson and Fil-Spaniard Juani Guirado Aldeguer, as well as talents from the domestic scene.
Araneta expects the Azkals to be at or near full strength, and that the national squad had worked its buns off tactics-wise while avoiding injury.
“The boys are not only out to prove that their semifinal run of two years ago was no fluke,” said Araneta. The Azkals, he added, are all out to sway people to a game best suited to our build and temperament and to convert believers of another team sport destined for skyscrapers-on-wheels, which we are not.
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If you scan the landscape of my birthplace, Cuyapo, Nueva Ecija, it’s the patchwork of rice fields that makes it all so splendid. But your enjoyment is soon jarred by the rocky roads of Bentigan and Cacapasan near the border with Tarlac and Curva, Pugo and San Jose on the way to Pangasinan and the provincial capital of Cabanatuan.
I can still recall the times when my late, great bud, Bert “Tawa” Marcelo teased that the provincial roads leading to Cuyapo were worse than the lunar landscape. Bert’s digs still ring in my ears today.
The state of disrepair is evident on a stretch of the highway near the old railroad tracks up to the Shell station. It’s amazing why paving, started almost two years ago, remains unfinished as of my last visit this week. Paging Gov. Oyie Umali and Mayor Jong Corpus.