Azkals’ homegrown heroes
For battle-scarred veterans Chieffy Caligdong, Roel Gener and Ian Araneta, their newfound fame and that of the Philippine Azkals is just a bonus.
To them, what’s important is that football is now a sport that Filipinos are starting to embrace. Everything that comes after is just icing on the cake.
“It’s always enough for us that we have made football popular in the country,” said the 28-year-old Caligdong, a veteran of the national team since 2004.
“Our satisfaction comes when kids come to us and say that they also want to play and be an Azkal in the future,” said Araneta, who joined the national team as a reed-thin 19-year-old in 2002.
‘We want to inspire’
“We just want to inspire the young generation to embrace the sport,” said Gener, an Armyman who, at 37, is the oldest member of the current squad.
The three players all came from the football haven of Barotac Nuevo, a 45-minute drive from Iloilo City. Kids learn the game early in Barotac. Drop a football and chances are kids will play passing games and show off their skills that breed individual panache.
Football is deeply rooted among residents of Barotac Nuevo so it came as no surprise when an overwhelming crowd showed up for an international match pitting the Philippines against Bhutan three years ago.
The Azkals got an even warmer reception when they returned to play an exhibition match in Barotac last June. Caligdong, Araneta and Gener made their homecoming memorable when they played in the same field where they honed their skills as kids.
The three have also played against each other over the years, but that hardly matters as their relationships go beyond the field. Once, in a tightly-contested final of a beach football tournament a few years ago, Gener accidentally hit Caligdong in the jaw.
The injury was serious and left Caligdong sidelined for several months. The adversity only strengthened their bond.
When Araneta went on a dry scoreless spell, Caligdong and Gener were among those who pushed him not to give up. Gener and Caligdong competed for starting spots during the Suzuki Cup main tournament but the competition was healthy and each player goaded the other to do well for the country.
When Caligdong scored the opening goal against Mongolia in the AFC Challenge Cup pre-qualifying stage in Bacolod, Gener was the first to congratulate him as he celebrated to the delight of the Azkals faithful.
“We are like brothers here,” said Araneta.
Residents still are not surprised when they see the trio playing on the local plaza field barefoot as they had done so when they were kids.
“We are proud we grew up in Barotac,” said Caligdong.
Motorcycle manufacturer Suzuki has acknowledged the efforts of Caligdong, Araneta, Gener and two other homegrown players now part of the Azkals—Paolo Pascual from Cebu and Yannick Tuason from Davao—in making their hometowns proud. The five have been launched as brand ambassadors in a campaign dubbed “Hometown Heroes” for making an impact on the sport.
At the press launch of the campaign, Pascual, who at 21 is the youngest among the five “Hometown Heroes,” candidly admits being starstruck at the presence of his local idols—Caligdong and Araneta.
“Just being in the team with them is already an honor for me,” said Pascual, who started playing the game as a 7-year-old at Paref Springdale School in Cebu.
“The Hometown Heroes campaign is part of Suzuki’s support for football and the National Team,” said Suzuki Philippines president Satoshi Uchida. “These hometown heroes are the best icon to represent local football.”
Suzuki has been a staunch supporter of local football having sponsored the Suzuki Cup Under-23 National Championship that was geared at discovering players for the Under-23 side for the Southeast Asian Games. The Azkals actually started getting noticed when they made their run to the Suzuki Cup semifinals in Vietnam and Indonesia.
While Araneta and Gener have been impact players for the Azkals, Caligdong has emerged as one of the superstars in the team. Fleet-footed with brilliant close control, Caligdong is a menacing threat on the left flank. His nine goals for the national team have all been equally important as some of them came at a time when the squad just struggled to get good results in the international stage.
Araneta already has eight international goals to his name, while Gener is one of the most reliable utility players in the squad.
The influx of foreign-bred talent in the team has only motivated Caligdong, Araneta and Gener to prove their worth and give local hopefuls the confidence that they can be an integral part of the success in the international stage.
“We want to prove that we can also contribute to the team,” said Caligdong. Their legacy, though, has already been sealed as their exploits have helped boost football to unprecedented heights—just as they had set out to do.