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Azkals break ground

THE PHILIPPINE National Football Team Azkals’ 4-0 rout of Sri Lanka last Saturday at the Rizal Memorial Stadium put the country back on the map of World Cup football.

In a dazzling display of attacking football, the Azkals advanced to the second round of the 2014 Fifa World Cup qualifying series, the first time in Philippine football history. Football has long been regarded as extant in the country’s sport firmament since the 1930s, outstripped and overshadowed by basketball and boxing.

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To emphasize the significance of the victory, the local team was locked in a 1-1 tie in Sri Lanka in the opening leg of the series in Colombo a few days earlier. The victory sent the Philippines to a second round meeting with Kuwait on July 23 and 28. Kuwait is regarded as a stronger team than Sri Lanka. The national team will be playing in the second round of World Cup qualifiers for the first time.

The 4-0 massacre of  Sri Lanka marked a resurgence of  Philippine football and revived memories of the glory days of football in the county. Aly Borromeo, skipper of the Azkals, was not carried away by the victory to make extravagant claims. All he could say was: “Again we made history. It’s an amazing feeling making history in front of your countrymen. This is just the start and we got a long way to go.”

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The name of the national team, Azkals, is a self-deprecating title derived from the native name for stray dogs, meaning those without pedigree. Thus the team is clearly aware that it plays in a fiercely competitive global arena as an underdog.

And yet the 13,000 fans who filled the stadium to capacity shouted themselves hoarse as the locals bombarded the Sri Lankan goal with an impunity and élan  seen often in the big league World Cup teams.

The revival of football means so much for sports-minded Filipinos. It means we are breaking away from the  dominance of basketball—a syndrome that has stunted us from developing athletic prowess in other sports where we have a better  chance of winning in international competitions, such as swimming and other team sports. In the 1930s, during the world Olympics and Far Eastern Olympics, our contingents won fame and medals in a range of events, including swimming, track and field, baseball and, of course, basketball, but overtime athletic development has narrowed overwhelmingly to basketball, the No. 1 sport in the country today.

In the 1930s,  football was one of the foremost  team sports. It was as popular as basketball. In inter-collegiate and inter-university competition, football was favored among the Spanish mestizo class, which could be explained by the fact that football was introduced by Europeans. Basketball is a legacy of the American public education system. It is a sport where they have a decided advantage because of their height.

The resurgence of Filipino football has reopened the  way for reduction of our dependence on basketball in team sports, and boxing for individual events, for athletic glory in the playing fields. As of today, athletic glory has rested on the boxing prowess of Manny Paquiao, and little else, and over the past few decades our dominance of basketball has declined in regional competitions,  as taller players (including  imported foreigners) cramped the playing skills of Filipinos, whose swiftness on the court cannot make up for their lack of height. While players have grown taller, allowing them to dunk the ball into the ring with ease, the height of the goal has remained the same. Thus basketball no longer is a sport where Filipinos can shine.

The performance of Azkals in the early rounds of the World Cup qualifiers offers grounds for hope that in  football we have  more than a fighting chance of winning.  The training  of the Azkals players in the more fluid tactics  of play and snappy footwork and passing shots has shown that local players can adapt quickly to the standards of World Cup football.  Their exposure to competition abroad with foreign teams  has borne fruit, proof of which is the aggressive  attacking style of the team, displaying the flair of European football.

Once every four years,  the World  Cup is the field on which national pride is built. There are no superior races on the football field competing for supremacy with  the nimble use of their legs, and where athletes play  as a team with the precision and clockwork of a Swiss watch. Industrial development, military might and  political stability cannot ensure dominance  on the football field. But national pride is won and lost on it.

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There is nothing more awe-inspiring to watch than the movements of competing teams on the football field. Football matches are like military formations clashing in the Battle of  Waterloo or the German Panzer divisions invading France in World War II. No wonder, inspired by these military scenarios, football has developed two conceptual styles: offensive  as  practiced by Argentinian and Brazilian football, and the disciplined and defensive style favored by the Germans.

We have started to demonstrate that despite debilitating governance issues, we can win on the playing  field in games where we are not physically handicapped. Basketball  has proved to be a sport for which Filipinos are ill-suited. In  basketball, we are born losers and we are likely to be doomed to remain a basket case and waste our energies. It is a sport whose only useful function is to encourage puerile intercollegiate athletic competition, where pride rests on  performance in basketball games.

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TAGS: featured columns, fifa world cup, football, opinion, Philippine azkals, sports
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