Azkals rise again
The team that has gone through so much heartbreak and frustration in the past few years finally got over the hump on Tuesday night.
And the script couldn’t have been written perfectly for the Philippine Azkals.
A goal down at home with perhaps the largest crowd showing up in recent memory at Rizal Memorial Stadium, the Azkals seized the moment and realized their dream of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time with a comeback for the ages against Tajikistan.
Up until Kevin Ingreso headed home the equalizer in the 74th minute, the feeling had been all too familiar for the Azkals, who lost to Palestine in the battle for an Asian Cup berth four years ago in Male, Maldives.
The Azkals were always on the brink of glory only too fall short when the stakes were at their highest.
In truth, the Azkals should have qualified a couple of games ago when they played Yemen in Doha and Nepal in Kathmandu, but the team drew both matches, leaving them with one last chance at home.
The crowd exploded again as captain Phil Younghusband converted the 90th minute penalty to make it 2-1 and quite fittingly, for his 50th international goal.
What followed were scenes straight out of a movie. Grown men hugging each other, tears of joy streaming down their faces, while the gallery applauded in approval.
For veterans like Phil and James Younghusband and Neil Etheridge and assistant coach Chris Greatwich, who were all part of the team that pulled off the “Miracle in Hanoi,” qualification to the continental showpiece culminated a long journey from the depths of Southeast Asian football.
“It’s been up and down,” said Phil Younghusband. “There’s progression. From 2010, we’ve made progress. Maybe the lack of success and wins in the tournament made people not talk about Philippine football but I think the team needs to be successful. That happens all over the world. To bring people in.”
“It’s been up and down, it’s been amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Leftback Daisuke Sato, who stayed on the side of the pitch to watch the Palestinians celebrate their victory, faced the crowd this time in tears. Now 23, he savored the Azkals’ biggest victory.
“I love being Filipino,” said Sato, who grew up in Japan. “I’ve had a hard life but football has given me everything. Philippine football opened opportunities for me. This is why I give back. I love my country.”
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Etheridge. “It’s been tough for the team. We’ve all made mistakes, both on and off the field—management, ourselves as players. We’ve learned from it, we got stronger.”
Phil Younghusband hopes the Azkals biggest milestone to date triggers another wave of corporate support for the sport.
“Hopefully this is the catalyst for more support in Philippine football,” he said. “In 2010 we got a lot of support from the private industry, hopefully this moment could be another resurgence of Philippine football.”