The rise of the Azkals: Philippine football acquires a swagger–and backs it up on the pitch
Around this time time last year, the Philippine football team was reeling from the departure of a coach, who had taken on another job in India. The tournament they were preparing for was just three months away and it looked as though it would be just another one of those overseas trips that would end in heartbreak.
There was little expectation especially after missing out on qualification in the past two tournaments. The Philippine Azkals were tucked in obscurity, hardly in the country’s sporting consciousness.
Fast forward to July 2011 and the difference is noticeable. Not only have these Azkals acquired a swagger that had gone missing in the past, they have backed the hype on the pitch.
Retracing their success story over the past year though isn’t easy.
Do you begin with their monumental upset of Vietnam in the Suzuki Cup in December?
The Azkals refused to be intimidated by pedigree and the partisan crowd to claim the biggest upset in the tournament’s history. But before that dramatic win, there was a draw salvaged against Singapore deep into injury time when the Azkals had been given up for dead.
And before that dramatic tie, there was another late, unheralded yet remarkable two-goal comeback to forge a draw against Laos and a five-goal romp over Timor Leste in the qualifying stage—that, had it not been fashioned out, would have sent the Azkals into football oblivion earlier.
Over the past nine months, there had been so many watershed moments for these Azkals, whose success has been built on sheer belief, resilience, tenacity and hard work.
“I feel there is just a confluence of events that led us to the moment we have now,” said Azkals manager Dan Palami, who took on the role in late 2009 when the Azkals hardly merited attention.
If the Azkals were considered lucky, then surely they set themselves up to be lucky.
Except for the Suzuki Cup semifinals where they bowed to Indonesia in a couple of 0-1 defeats, the Azkals have delivered the results when they needed to.
In basketball parlance, they have been clutch.
Needing a win to qualify to the AFC Challenge Cup main tournament, they thrashed Bangladesh in Myanmar. On the cusp of history, the Azkals made the most out of the opportunity, dismantling Sri Lanka to reach the second round of World Cup Qualifying for the first time before 13,000 fans at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Along the way, stars have surfaced—some of them deservedly recognized for sticking it out with the team “when all they had was heart.”
“I knew it was going to be a realistic goal or realistic achievement that we can accomplish, but we are surprised we were able to achieve it as such a short time,” Palami said. “Normally, the development of the sport will take several years. We’ve managed to accomplish something that’s supposed to be undertaken in five years time in a short period. The rise has been phenomenal in itself.”
Players like Roel Gener, Chieffy Caligdong, Aly Borromeo and Ian Araneta will always provide the link to the Azkals’ past that is littered with heartbreak and despair. Gener, still a force at 37, and Araneta, 28, were part of the team that absorbed a forgettable 1-13 beating in Indonesia nine years ago.
But they were also on the pitch during one of the team’s proudest moment in Vietnam last year.
Standouts like Neil Etheridge, Stephan Schrock, Manny Ott, Angel Aldeguer and Phil and James Younghusband give the Azkals plenty of quality not only now but for many years to come.
Homegrown players and standouts with Filipino blood from other parts of the world collectively took the team to greater heights.
Forming the team has admittedly been the biggest problem with players coming from different parts of the globe and making their living from playing the sport. They usually arrive a few days before matches.
But the local players, although dwindling in number in the team, contributed significantly in keeping the group together.
“We feed off their competitive edge and our never-say-die attitude,” said Etheridge of his homegrown teammates. “As much as they would like to learn from us with more experience, we also need to also learn from them to keep our attitude right and spirits high.”
‘For each other’
“When the foreigners arrive, they know what they’re here for,” Borromeo said. “We’re fighting for each other.”
“Our only goal was just to uplift the sport and hopefully in our little way we have been able to do it,” Caligdong said in Filipino.
Now as the accomplishments pile up, the pressure mounts.
Borromeo has always been quick to put success in perspective.
“We have a long way to go in terms of making an impact in the football world. It’s always up to us keep this going,” Borromeo said of the Azkals and the wave of support they have stirred in a country that usually reserves its loudest cheers and fanatical devotion for basketball.
“Whatever we do, we always have to remember the time when talent and resources were scarce and all we had was heart,” said Palami. “We have a responsibility to play well. We owe it to our supporters and the people who believed in us.”
Kuwait is just the latest in the string of challenges that these batch of Azkals need to overcome. But whatever happens, there’s no doubting their tremendous contribution for a once-reeling sport they helped pull out of the doldrums.
And whatever happens, they will no longer be alone.
“We’ve been waiting so long for football to touch the heart of the Filipinos,” the skipper Borromeo said.
Not bad for a team that a year ago was just trying to cope with its separation from its coach.