Azkals give OFWs a piece of home
KUWAIT—Edith Fuentes couldn’t help but wax emotional when the Lupang Hinirang was played at the Bahrain National Stadium for the first time Saturday.
It’s not common for the national anthem to be sung in foreign shores. When it was played before 10,000 Filipinos, the tears flowed freely from people in the crowd as an overwhelming sense of nationalism enveloped the stadium.
As lead organizer of the Bahrain-Philippines Friendship Football Games, Fuentes had an enormous task of ensuring that the event, one of the first major undertakings by the Filipino community since the state of emergency was lifted in Bahrain, went on without a hitch.
The Azkals were in this financial hub in the Gulf region for the first time since their rise as the Philippines’ newest sports darlings. Their visit to Bahrain was a monumental event in itself.
Playing in the stadium made it more memorable not only for the members of the team but for Filipinos there who long for “a piece of home.”
For Fuentes, helping organize what turned out to be the biggest gathering by the Filipino community was something she will cherish forever.
And she had the Azkals to thank for it. Everywhere in Bahrain, the Azkals were mobbed with overseas Filipino workers (OFW)—kaholeros, as Azkals fans are fondly called in the Philippines—wanting to get a glimpse of, and interact with, the sports heroes.
Such poignant moments are not isolated in Bahrain. There is never a shortage of Filipino supporters for the national team everywhere they go in the world. In Laos in October last year, where they started their run to the Suzuki Cup, The Azkals played in front of about 100 Filipinos who came to the stadium to watch their matches. It was also the same story in Vietnam and Indonesia as well as in Mongolia, Germany and Sri Lanka.
Arriving in Kuwait Tuesday night, there was a big number of Filipino airport workers who greeted the Azkals in the tarmac, prompting Filipino-Spanish striker Angel Guirado to say: “Mucho Filipino del mundo. (So many Filipinos all over the world).”
Most members of the team are products of the Filipino diaspora. Neil Etheridge, Rob Gier, Simon and Chris Greatwich, Phil and James Younghusband all grew up in England, Ray Jonsson moved to Iceland when he was seven to be with his father, Jason de Jong and Paul Mulders hail from the Netherlands, Manny Ott and Stephan Schrock were born and raised in Germany and Aly Borromeo, Anton del Rosario and Nate Burkey spent most of the years of their lives in the United States. Guirado himself grew up in Spain.
“The support everywhere we go has been overwhelming,” said skipper Aly Borromeo.
Even coach Michael Weiss was surprised at how Filipinos everywhere come out to support the team. Assistant coach Edzel Bracamante was particularly touched when several Filipinos went to watch their games in Germany.
“Some came from Austria and Poland just to watch the team play,” said Bracamonte.
Josef Malinay, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, feels the Azkals are already ambassadors just because they unite the Filipino community when they make stops abroad.
“It’s always touching when you are called kabayan abroad,” said Malinay.
Sports are great equalizers and football being the most popular sport in the world makes Azkals victories more meaningful. Azkals manager Dan Palami said they would hear fans abroad telling the players to “win it for us.”
“For the OFWs, I think we represent a piece of what they call home,” Palami said. “Culturally, we have always been supportive of the home teams of the country where we are. But I think this is the first time that Filipinos abroad are into football and are supporting their national team.”
“In football, if you beat a country where the sport is big, it brings a lot of pride for Filipinos there,” said Palami.
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