Azkals shine through pain
MANILA—Through bruises, cuts and broken bones, game in and game out, the Philippine Azkals have evolved into a mean fighting unit known for its toughness, resilience and a never-say-die attitude that has endeared them to the Filipino sports faithful.
Like any other athlete, the Azkals have battled hard through injuries, enabling them to boost their stature as one of the emerging teams in Asia. Each Azkal has his own unique painful experience with injuries, which one can only hope will never happen again.
“Getting injured is a player’s worst nightmare,” said attacking midfielder Stephan Schrock, who recently returned from a seven-month layoff caused by a knee injury. “A player’s career lasts only 10 to 12 years and getting sidelined for six months is already a lot of time lost.”
A versatile athlete who also dabbles in basketball and played golf in his younger years, Aly Borromeo has been a key figure for the Azkals ever since he made his debut in the 2004 Tiger Cup in Thailand.
But none of those experiences could have prepared him for that fateful January night four years ago in Bangkok when the Philippines battled a highly-fancied Malaysia to kick off its campaign in the main tournament of the Asean Football Championships.
Defending as Malaysia went on the counter-attack eight minutes into the game, Borromeo felt his knee tweak and slumped to the ground. Worse, Malaysia scored its opening goal in the leadup to the play when Borromeo was injured and eventually ran out a 4-0 winner.
Without Borromeo for the remainder of the tournament, the Azkals’ backline was vulnerable. Cutting a forlorn figure on the grandstand and leaning on crutches, he encouraged his teammates to put up a tougher defensive stand. But his absence took a toll on the team and another 4-0 loss to Thailand all but ended the hopes of the Azkals of making a maiden semifinal appearance in the prestigious regional tournament.
When Borromeo returned to Manila, the diagnosis was a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) which sidelined the central defender for the next six months.
‘Couldn’t do anything but cry’
“When I learned about it, I couldn’t think of anything else to do but cry,” recalled Borromeo. With a better knee, Borromeo regained his place in the team and again became one of its most influential players.
Growing up in the football-loving town of Barotac Nuevo in Iloilo, where rough and tumble matches are the norm, Chieffy Caligdong has developed into a tough-as-nails player despite his diminutive, lean frame. With his brilliant footwork and goal-scoring instinct, Caligdong has made everyone forget that just three years ago, his mobility was limited by cervical spasms.
The injury was caused by a nasty but unintentional hit on the right side of his face by fellow Azkal Roel Gener during the finals of a beach football tournament in San Carlos City. As he was rushed to the hospital, Caligdong thought his career was over. But the Airman refused to quit, dedicating himself to therapy. After seven months, he was back on the pitch again.
Another injury scare hit Caligdong last year during their second match in the Suzuki Cup Qualifiers in Laos. Thirty minutes into the duel against Laos, Caligdong received a boot to the groin from a Laotian player, prompting the Azkals physiotherapists Wally Javier and Josef Malinay to stretcher him off the pitch.
Caligdong was limited to a substitute’s role in the Suzuki Cup main tournament in Vietnam and just when everyone thought he was a spent force, he made a memorable return to the starting lineup in the AFC Challenge Cup Pre-Qualifying match in February, scoring the crucial first goal against Mongolia in Bacolod.
Anton del Rosario and Neil Etheridge have also played through pain. Del Rosario, the marauding rightback, sustained a broken ankle but felt that couldn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of joining Major League Soccer club San Jose Earthquakes. He shrugged off the pain when he was called up for the second round of tryouts. When it was all over, the former Notre Dame de Namur standout was forced to sit out for two and a half months because of the injury.
Knee surgery, broken bones
Etheridge has been with London-based English Premiere League club Fulham FC since he was a teenager. Two years ago, Etheridge injured his knee that needed surgery. His quick recovery allowed him to play the remainder of the season with the reserve team last year and he again was instrumental to the Azkals’ success the past year because of his shot-stopping savvy.
Jason Sabio has perhaps the most harrowing injury among the Azkals. Coming home from a conference tournament to his hometown in Alabama 2006, the bus that Sabio’s team rode in met an accident when one of the tires blew out. Sabio found himself in all sorts of pain. He broke five bones around his right eye and needed plastic surgery to fix his nose. But the strong defender made his return to the pitch a few months later and was called up by the Azkals for the first time in February this year.
The 37-year-old Gener fractured his left hand recently during a scrimmage and has a recurring injury caused by a calcified tissue on his foot. Gener admits feeling the pain, but the tough Armyman that he is, has played through it. He takes pain relievers, including Cortal SQR, which is now one of the team’s top backers.
The Azkals have been appreciative of Cortal’s gesture to help the team.
“Thank you to everyone supporting the Team Azkals,” they recently said in a statement to Cortal management. “Please continue supporting us as we face a tough opponent. We are also very thankful to Cortal SQR, who from the start, has already been behind us; na sa bawat aray, may Cortal SQR, para alis sakit, alis pain, for us to continue our journey to victory.”
The next time you see Borromeo dispossessing the opposing striker with a well-timed tackle, Caligdong leaving a dumbfounded defender in his wake, del Rosario raiding the right flank, Etheridge diving to palm away the ball headed goalwards, Sabio tenaciously battling for possession or Gener chasing an opposing player, think about the pain they had gone through.
Its this fearlessness and tenacity that the Azkals possess that make them shine through the pain.
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