Azkals all heart, play for AFC title on Friday
MALE, Maldives—In one final act of defiance, the youngest Filipino player on the pitch, defender Amani Aguinaldo, kissed the Philippine flag on his sleeve in front of a fuming Maldives skipper Ali Ashfaq, before breaking down in tears.
In an exhausting 120 minutes that reminded everyone how football can be beautiful and brutal at the same time, the Philippines ousted hosts Maldives, 3-2, on a goal by Chris Greatwich in extra time on Tuesday, sending the Azkals to the finals of the AFC Challenge Cup.
The Philippines will face Palestine, which upset Afghanistan, 2-0, in the other semifinal.
The National Stadium here was littered with tired and battle-weary bodies and in the end, it was the Filipinos who were shedding tears of joy.
“When you go through a roller coaster of emotions during the match, it’s really down to heart and this team showed that it had the heart and the fighting spirit,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami.
No ordinary run
Playing in his first major international tournament, the 19-year-old Aguinaldo was tasked to defend the dangerous Ashfaq all night and when the final whistle blew, his emotions boiled over.
This wasn’t just an ordinary victory for a Philippine side that had set lofty goals at the start of the AFC Challenge Cup. There’s a bigger goal ahead and they just moved closer to it.
The Azkals are now within one win of their cherished dream of reaching the AFC Asian Cup in Australia next year.
Greatwich, one of the two goalscorers, of the miraculous 2-0 win over Vietnam four years ago in Hanoi that sparked the sport’s renaissance in the country, scored the match winner in the 104th minute after both teams battled to a 2-2 stalemate in regulation play.
“It’s just a surreal night,” Azkals captain Rob Gier said after the team celebrated in front of 300 Filipino fans in the stadium.
“I’ve never played for a team that plays with so much heart. I just don’t know how this team does it. We’ve managed to find extra reserves somewhere and dig really deep. The spirit of this team is incredible,” Gier said.
The match had all the trappings of a classic. The Azkals dominated possession for most of the match, but a Maldives side feeding off the energy of a packed stadium fought back twice to force the extension.
Goals from Phil Younghusband and Jerry Lucena kept the Azkals on top for the most part, but the Azkals also needed the heroics of goalkeeper Roland Müller who stopped a penalty in the second half that could have been the difference between the two sides.
Standing in the way of the Azkals’ dream of lifting a first major trophy and a spot in the Asian Cup is Palestine, which refuses to be satisfied after bringing down favorite Afghanistan.
“It is not enough just to be in the final; we need to win it too,” said Palestine coach Jamal Mahmoud. “Otherwise, all this effort will be of no use.”
Palestine advanced on the strength of goals from Ashraf Al Fawaghra on either side of half time.
The final will be played on Friday at 9 p.m. here (12 midnight, Saturday in Manila).
The Asian Cup is the continent’s showpiece football event where the likes of powerhouse Japan, South Korea and Iran are seeing action and the Azkals are looking to prove they belong in the elite group. The country has never qualified for the tournament.
“We want to play at the next level, that is not a secret,” said the Azkals’ German-American coach Thomas Dooley. “We came over here to win the Challenge Cup. We want to play at the next level, which is the Asian Cup, so we want to play against those big guys, not to win something, but to play with them and that is our biggest goal.”
Dooley added: “The biggest thing we can do is write a new history in the next game so we want to prepare the team to write history.”
The Azkals came into the match on the back of two straight wins, including a 2-0 triumph over 2012 tormentor Turkmenistan. And they started the match on a positive note with Younghusband giving the Azkals the lead in the 18th minute, showing strength and determination to hold off a defender before firing low to beat Maldives goalkeeper Mohammad Imran.
Mohamed Umair equalized in the 36th minute with a chip past Müller, but Lucena, the Fil-Danish midfielder, scored his first goal for the country when he bundled home a cross from Daisuke Sato at the near post.
The Azkals conceded a penalty nine minutes after the break when Aguinaldo appeared to have pushed Ashfaq inside the penalty box.
Müller saved a penalty for the second straight game and was also alert to keep out Ashfaq’s effort in stoppage time, while Gier made a goal-line clearance in the 87th minute.
And just when it looked like the Azkals didn’t have enough gas left on the tank, Greatwich popped up inside the six-yard box to direct a shot by Patrick Reichelt into goal, silencing what had been a boisterous home crowd.
Fair Play rule
Chasing an equalizer, the Maldivians were accused of allegations of not upholding the Fair Play rule when one of their players went on the attack when he should have given the ball back to the Azkals.
“Overall, we were hungry for this victory,” said Dooley, a former US World Cup skipper, who is just three months into the job.
“In the end I am very pleased with how the team played against their great players who are always dangerous. Overall, I think that we deserved to win. We had great chances in the first half but we did not put them away,” he added.
In a bid to keep the team motivated, Dooley and Azkals manager Dan Palami have been showing videos of the team about Filipino heroism. One poignant video titled the “Filipino Spirit is Unshakeable” was about significant moments in Filipino history and also young adults playing in Super Typhoon Yolanda-hit Tacloban.
A lot of crying
“Let’s just say there’s been a lot of crying in this tournament from the team with all the videos and what we have seen,” joked midfielder Simon Greatwich.
The match that finished around 3 a.m. on Wednesday in Manila kept Filipinos busy online with supporters posting congratulatory messages on Twitter and on Facebook to the team.—With a report from AFP
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