It was a night that will live long in the memory for Philippine football.
Nearly down and out before a packed Rizal Memorial Stadium grandstand, the Azkals summoned their trademark never-say-die spirit to pull off the biggest achievement in history of the sport in the country.
The Azkals fought back from a goal down in the second half to subdue Tajikistan, 2-1, Tuesday night to secure qualification to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup for the first time.
All those years of frustration and heartbreak turned to jubilation on one magical night on the turf, where the Azkals produced a performance for the ages. Players hugged as they were reduced to tears at the final whistle.
“Today we showed our character,” goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, fighting back tears, told the Inquirer.
Etheridge was part of the national team that triggered the sport’s renaissance eight years ago with a victory in Hanoi, Vietnam. But the sport lost grip of support and following over the past few years and the Azkals collectively knew that they needed this milestone to somehow regain their place in the country’s sporting landscape.
“That was the Azkals that I knew and have known for,” said Etheridge. “Never give up. It doesn’t matter. It’s amazing. I just want to thank everyone who came here today.”
It wasn’t just the result, but the way the Azkals hammered it out. Their shoulders dropped when Kevin Ingreso conceded the penalty that was duly converted by Nazarov Akhtam in the 64th minute.
But Ingreso, who has quietly solidified his role as the Azkals’ top choice defensive midfielder, atoned for the mistake with the equalizer 10 minutes later, before Phil Younghusband sealed victory from the penalty spot in injury time as the Azkals celebrated their first appearance in the continental showpiece event, where they will be up against football giants like Korea, Japan, Iran and Australia.
“I can’t even describe the emotion,” said Younghusband. “I don’t even care about goal No. 50; I’m just so happy we made it to the Asian Cup. There’s always doubts when we conceded. But we stepped up our game.”
For Etheridge, the win adds another highlight to what is starting to be a great year for him. Struggling to find a club in England four years ago, he actually thought about quitting the sport altogether.
It’s a part of his career that is rarely mentioned these days, but is equally significant in his remarkable rise from the depths to one of the finest goalkeepers in the English Championship, while playing for Cardiff City, which is on track for promotion to the English Premier League.
“It’s crazy thinking about it,” said the 28-year-old Etheridge on the toughest spell of his career. “Those kinds of experiences help me become the player that I am now.”
Cardiff City needs four more victories and a draw from their last nine matches to clinch promotion—but even that would take a back seat to the Azkals’ accomplishment Tuesday night.
“We want to make history for Philippine football again,” Etheridge said before the match.
With another show of grit, the Azkals accomplished that goal.