Sometimes, even the greatest of goals can be obscured by the worst penalties. The national football team, more popularly known as the Philippine Azkals, continues on its drive to improve on the Philippines’ history as a footballing nation. Since their breakout a few years ago, the Azkals have been at the helm of a surge in football popularity in a country that even has its own league – the Unified Football League – with regularly televised games, as well as a fan base that is both knowledgeable and fanatic in its following. They remain the biggest football attraction in town, and they recently did the Philippines proud with an unprecedented performance in the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup in Kathmandu, Nepal.
In their best run yet, the Azkals downed India and Tajikistan to barge into the semifinals for the first time, setting a date with a Turkmenistan team that routed them, 0-5, in 2009. Against Turkmenistan on Friday, the Azkals actually went ahead, 1-0, before bowing out in a disastrous endgame, 1-2. Nevertheless, the team – now ranked 156th in the world – did what it had set out to do, which was to improve on its previous performances, enough to nurture hope for a stronger showing in the future World Cup qualifiers.
Unfortunately, the Azkals are dogged by controversy at home, which takes some of the shine off their bright sojourn in Kathmandu for the Challenge Cup. Much of it has to do with the incident in the Azkals dugout at the Rizal Memorial Stadium before the team’s friendly with Malaysia on Feb. 29. Former Philippine Olympic Commission president Cristy Ramos, a daughter of former President Fidel V. Ramos and serving as commissioner for the international friendly, had visited the Azkals dugout as part of her pre-match inspection. In the complaint she subsequently filed with the AFC Disciplinary Committee, Ramos said that while she was in the dugout, two of the Azkals “ridiculed” her, “with one player disrespectfully asking for the size of her brassiere, which was followed by a roar of laughter.” She also said that another Azkal was half-naked in her presence, in violation of international football decorum.
The Philippine Football Federation, the sport’s national ruling body, has begun an investigation of the matter through its disciplinary committee, according to PFF general secretary Rolly Tulay.
The Azkals have expressed regret through team manager Dan Palami. “I sincerely apologize to Commissioner Ramos for the distress this situation has caused her,” Palami said in a statement, adding that “if it is proven that there was in fact malicious intent, I will make sure that proper sanctions are meted out.” He also promised a thorough inquiry, saying that “like Commissioner Ramos, I also believe that sexual harassment should not be tolerated in any situation.”
The controversy triggered disparate reactions from opposing quarters. Some called for immediate sanctions, noting that this was the second incident involving the Azkals and accusations of sexual harassment. They said that Ramos was merely carrying out her duties as a commissioner, that what the players had done would tarnish whatever treasure they would find in their upcoming games, and that no matter how popular or successful the Azkals had become, they were not above the law or the sanctions to be imposed by the PFF. Then there were those who even blamed Ramos for what had happened in what, they pointed out, was a men’s locker room. They said believing Ramos’ claims reflected a lack of patriotism because support for the national football team included backing it even against charges of sexual harassment.
But support for the team and a determined effort to find out what happened in the dugout – and, if necessary, impose the appropriate sanctions – are not mutually exclusive. One can continue to cheer on the Azkals in their sporting milestones without turning a blind eye to the accusations of sexual harassment which, in this day and age, has no place in civilized society.
After all, representing the country is a high honor with stringent requirements, especially in the international setting. Those who carry our flag in competition should be beyond reproach. Let the authorities carry out a proper investigation and let the red cards fall where they may. Only then will the Azkals be a true inspiration for their fans, who may then cheer for them without doubt or reservation.