Azkals hurt, but find solace in supporters
MANILA—As the Philippine Azkals made one final lap at the end of their World Cup dream at the Rizal Memorial Stadium oval Thursday night, manager Dan Palami couldn’t help but shed tears just like some of his players.
No, those tears were not borne out of the pain of losing to Kuwait (1-2 and 1-5 on aggregate) or the end of what could have been the unthinkable odyssey to reach Brazil three years from now to play in the biggest spectacle in sport, the World Cup.
Palami, the man who took on the unenviable task of managing the squad and spent his own money for the team close to two years ago when they had little support, didn’t need to see the scoreboard to turn emotional.
All he and the Azkals needed to see were the Philippine flags waved on the bleachers and fans who braved the earlier downpour just to get to the stadium and even took the risk of getting wet just to watch the Azkals play and stayed after the final whistle was blown.
“We might have lost this game, but it was a proud moment to be a Filipino,” said Palami.
“We were proud enough to play against a team like Kuwait which is not just an Asian powerhouse but one of the top teams in the World. Its an even prouder moment to be representing the Philippines in front of Filipinos who even after the game was supporting the team.”
Palami added: “It’s a testament of how we are as a people. Despite the loss, we continue to support a team that we know played with their hearts against an apparently superior team.”
At the team hotel, in between posing for pictures and signing autographs for fans, defender Anton del Rosario shook his head as he thought about what might have been.
“We were so close,” Del Rosario said. “They were just very experienced, but this loss will only make us stronger.”
Neil Etheridge accommodated requests for photos, but was often caught staring blankly in space, his mind drifting away from the frenzy.
Impressive with a string of difficult first-half saves Etheridge, however, said he should have done better in stopping the first goal by Kuwait.
“The first goal was on me,” said the 21-year-old Filipino-British keeper who plays for Fulham in the English Premiere League. “But we are still growing as a team. We will only get better.”
Skipper Aly Borromeo, in a table with friends and loved ones, managed to squeeze out a smile. Reminded about the game though, Borromeo reacted like he had let something precious had slipped away from his grasp.
Borromeo missed the first leg because of suspension and described his feeling of watching from the stands as “excruciating.”
He returned to shore up the defensive line in the home leg.
The Azkals, buoyed by Stephan Schrock’s smashing first half injury time goal, were in the lead after 62 minutes, before Kuwait, despite playing with 10 men in the final 30 minutes of the game, recovered to secure the win and enter the third round, where established Asian teams like Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Australia and Bahrain are already seeded.
Palami said “it was too much of a miracle that we were hoping for” as the Azkals faced a 0-3 hole after the first leg in Kuwait.
“We’re proud of the team and to what they we have done. It showed that we can compete against the best of Asia. For 45 or 50 minutes, we were on top and that gave us hope,” Philippine Football Federation president Mariano “Nonong” Araneta said.
“Kuwait struggled against us. We can take confidence from that fact the next time we play,” said defender Ray Jonsson, the Filipino-Icelandic defender, who grew up in Liloan, Cebu.
Azkals striker Phil Younghusband who had a golden opportunity to put the home side 2-0 up in the 52nd minute only to have his shot saved by the Kuwaiti keeper, also took the positives from the loss.
“I think it was always going to be difficult to qualify after the first leg but I think we showed we can compete against good teams like Kuwait,” he said.
“The level of Philippine football has been raised and given the right planning and execution within the next few years we can really climb up in the football ladder and succeed in the sport. This is just the start.”
As far as Palami is concerned, the team has gone far from a year ago when the Azkals even struggled against lightweight teams.
“Less than a year ago, we were playing the Hong Kong U23 squad and lost 4-2,” he said. “I think from that time up to now we improved as we faced a lot of strong teams. The team has been strengthened by a new system.”