Yearender: Football scales new heights with Philippine Azkals
MANILA, Philippines—Picking up from where it left off, Philippine football scaled new heights in 2011 and lured a global icon as it firmly established a following in this basketball-crazy nation.
The Azkals fashioned out two historic achievements—qualification to the AFC Challenge Cup main tournament and the second round of World Cup Qualifying—in a stirring follow-up to their amazing semifinal run in the Suzuki Cup in December 2010.
And with former England captain David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy capping the year with a clinical display at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, there seems to be no stopping the rise of the “Beautiful Game” in the country.
The Philippines’ international campaign did suffer hiccups, particularly the abysmal showing of the Under-23 side in the 26th Southeast Asian Games that served as an eye-opener for officials to put up a long-term grassroots program to sustain the success.
The positives outnumbered the negatives, though, as far as football officials are concerned.
“It was a good year for Philippine football,” said Mariano “Nonong” Araneta, who got a fresh four-year term, a year after replacing Mari Martinez, who was ousted in the wake of alleged corruption issues and mismanagement.
The year started with the Azkals, under new coach Hans Michael Weiss, overpowering Mongolia, 2-0, on goals from homegrown hero Chieffy Caligdong and Fil-British striker Phil Younghusband in Bacolod last February—a win that enabled them to reach the group qualifying in Myanmar.
The Azkals, with Fil-Spanish recruit Angel Guirado, sparkled in Yangon, winning over Bangladesh and forging stalemates against favored Palestine and Myanmar to clinch one of the eight spots for the main tournament in March in Nepal.
End to 10-year hiatus
After a 10-year hiatus, the Philippines made it to the World Cup Qualifying, getting a favorable first-round draw against Sri Lanka. Held to a 1-1 standoff in Colombo, the Azkals, playing infront of a crowd 13,000, came out with all guns blazing in a 4-nil drubbing of the Sri Lankans that also heralded the return of international football to the historic Rizal Memorial in Manila.
The Azkals unveiled a bevy of new stars in Fil-Germans Stephan Schrock and Roland Muller, Fil-Dutch Paul Mulders and Fil-Danish players Dennis Cagara and Jerry Lucena.
But having the best available players in the side continued to evade the Azkals even as it faced Kuwait in the second round of World Cup Qualifying.
Playing before 10,000 Filipino fans in Kuwait, the Azkals, missing suspended skipper Aly Borromeo and Stephan Schrock, bowed to the Al-Azraq, 0-3.
Schrock left a lasting impression on the World Cup campaign with a 25-yard thunderbolt that gave the Azkals the lead in the second leg against Kuwait, sending the Rizal Memorial crowd into delirium.
But it wasn’t enough as the Azkals later fell, 1-3.
With Filipino players from Europe arriving a day or two before games, cohesion remained a problem for the team. And the Philippine Football Federation moved to address the concern, staging friendly matches on Fifa international dates to get the best possible players.
Even without Schrock, the Azkals drubbed Nepal, 4-0, in a friendly at Rizal Memorial in October, just four days after losing to host Singapore, 0-2, in another friendly.
The Azkals improved on their third-place finish, settling for runner-up honors in the Long Teng Cup with Caligdong securing the Golden Boot with four goals in three games.
Malditas prove a point
The women’s team also collected its first point in an international competition in two years, salvaging a draw against Malaysia in the AFF Women’s Championship in Laos. The Malditas, however, failed to reach the semifinals.
Football fever was at its highest, though, in December when Beckham and the Galaxy arrived in Manila for an exhibition match against the Azkals.
Playing perhaps one of his last games with the Galaxy, the 36-year-old Beckham repaid the adulation with a trademark curling strike from 20 yards—a highlight of a solid, classy performance that saw him spray long passes with precision and swerving corner kicks.
The action on the pitch took a backseat when Beckham acknowledged the presence of Filipino ring idol Manny Pacquiao and gave him his playing jersey.
The 6-1 demolition at the hands of the Galaxy did not sit well with Weiss, who is now preparing his battle plan for two major tournaments—the Challenge Cup and the Suzuki Cup in December.
The rising popularity of the national team spilled over to the local front as the United Football League enjoyed unprecedented support that led to a P150-million television deal with TV5’s sports channel AKTV.
In an enthralling final, homegrown side Air Force nipped Loyola Meralco, 2-0, in the UFL Cup watched by a record crowd of 6,000 at the Rizal Memorial.