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Editorial

Fine football form

/ 12:32 AM November 30, 2014

It’s more than enough reason to crow about: The Philippine Men’s National Team—more popularly known as the Azkals—won against Indonesia, ending an 80-year drought. That’s eight decades of futility against the same side, something that is not soon forgotten.

But Filipinos and football have now found convergence. It seems like a no-brainer: Here is a sport in which Filipinos can truly excel, where height does not matter as much as it does in basketball.

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The hard-fighting, high-flying Azkals had gone into the 2014 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup in Hanoi with victory on their minds. “The team is ready,” Azkals coach Thomas Dooley said then. The avatars of the current Filipino football renaissance, the Azkals continue to burnish their reputation as 129th in the world. After somewhat shaky performances in their last international friendlies and losing out in the AFC Challenge Cup as well as in the Philippine Peace Cup, the Azkals were all business in Hanoi, thumping Laos 4-1 in their first match.

It was the second match that meant the most, however. The Philippines last won at the Far East Games in Manila against what was then known as the Dutch East Indies in 1934. Even worse, the Indonesians had dealt the Philippines its worst loss, the disheartening 13-1 Tiger Cup blowout in 2002.

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But the Azkals did not flinch. Displaying superior fitness and speed, the Azkals easily confounded their opponents at My Dinh National Stadium last Tuesday. Just 16 minutes in, the Azkals manufactured a great scoring opportunity when midfielder Misagh Bahadoran saw his chance due to a vulnerable back pass, taking it away. The Indonesian captain Firman Utina then fouled Bahadoran, and prolific striker Phil Younghusband scored on the penalty. Forward Manny Ott hit the back of the net shortly into the second half, and then Martin Steuble struck at the 68th minute, thanks to some very canny football smarts by Phil Younghusband.

But the Azkals were not done yet, as defender Rob Gier scored at the 76th minute. The Indonesians, long the Azkals’ tormentors, were vanquished, 4-0. History was made.

After the game, Dooley was ebullient. “Every player fought for each other,” he said, even relenting on the Azkals’ super-strict dietary restrictions so that the victors could eat to their hearts’ content. “That’s the best game that I’ve seen the Azkals play ever since I took over management in 2010,” said team manager Dan Palami.

The Azkals have a habit of rewriting the record books. How significant then is this game beyond the banishing of a footballing ghost almost a century old? In December 2010, the Azkals ousted defending champion Vietnam 2-0 in an upset win that would be dubbed the “Miracle in Hanoi.” This was the win that put the Philippines back on the world football map for good, and ushered in a new golden age for Philippine football.

This new “Miracle in Hanoi” still feels mighty good. The Azkals punched their ticket to the Suzuki Cup semifinals for the third straight campaign, assuring themselves of an upcoming home game. That’s a big thing as the atmosphere will be electric when the Azkals play a meaningful game in front of the home crowd. Not even their 3-1 loss to cohost and favorite Vietnam could dampen the spirits as the Philippines still emerged second in Group A.

The Azkals now prepare for an even bigger challenge, a match against the top team in Group B possibly against a powerhouse Thailand side that had just drubbed the Philippines in a friendly last Nov. 9. Malaysia also looms as a possible opponent.

For now, the Azkals aim to shrug off the Vietnam loss and enter their Dec. 6 game fully focused at the 12,000-seat Rizal Memorial Stadium, traditionally their home pitch. The away game will then be held on Dec. 10.

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Here’s a case to push the cause of team sports, which Sen. Pia Cayetano insists should be among the priorities of the Philippine Sports Commission. “People like to see teams compete,” she said during deliberations for the PSC’s budget. “I can’t believe that we don’t have a single team sport in this priority.” Certainly the Azkals have proven that they deserve more government support.

For now, the Azkals remain darlings of the nation and will surely receive full-throated support at home on Dec. 6. It’s still the semifinals, but the Azkals have beefed up the collective hope. They’re good to go.

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TAGS: Azkals, football, Suzuki Cup
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