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Azkals Continue to Rise: Another Reason To Take Pinoy Pride to the Pitch

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Six years ago, the Philippines national football team was stuck in the cellar of ASEAN football. Only few people knew that there was a national team in football and not even many thought the team is capable of winning. The Azkals missed out on qualifying for the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and the same year’s AFF Championship due to inferior goal difference. How heartbreaking was that?

Now we go to 2014. November 25 to be precise. By beating Indonesia four goals to nothing, the Philippines secured a spot in the semifinals of the 2014 ASEAN Football Federation Championship (more famously known as the Suzuki Cup) for the third time on the trot. Another glorious chapter has been inscribed in Philippine football history books, which was previously filled by a plethora of melancholic events. The result ensured the Azkals will at least repeat the achievements of the two previous batches of players who valiantly escaped the group stage into the final four. Of course, what may set them apart from their predecessors is the chance to win it all.

As last week’s enormous win against a team that used to beat thrash us mercilessly in the past, I was overwhelmingly proud of how the national team has improved since I first saw them in action a dozen years ago. Growing up, I became a fan not just of the teams I like but of the sport as well. Everyone usually starts on that route. Restricting myself from getting carried away as I did not want to taint my work with partiality, I calmly uttered the words “yes” and “wow” in reacting to each goal while thinking about the construction of my article. The lopsided victory presented me more time to narrate the events from Hanoi’s My Dinh Stadium as articulate as possible.

After fulfilling my duties, I took time to reminisce every event I can recall since I began following the Philippine football team from afar. I say afar because I only watched most games on TV since 2002. (My first live game was the 1-1 draw against Malaysia back in 2012.) I realized that all three teams in our group have dealt me, the former players, and the supporters who have been following the team back when most Filipinos don’t even know we had a national team some counts of misery.

Laos, before this year, never lost to the Philippines in international football. Add to that the fact that they almost always had our number in the qualifying round of the AFF Championship. It took a James Younghusband’s last minute equalizer to make the Hanoi-induced football fever possible. Had the Philippines lost, they may have not qualified for Vietnam four years before and recorded remarkable results that led to a massive following amongst Filipinos. The 4-1 win proved to many that the Azkals are clearly beyond their Lao counterparts.

Indonesia has been a monster in ASEAN Football and has always been a football country (much like the Philippines is a basketball country) filled with talented players and passionate supporters. The biggest scar they placed in the memory of long time Azkals fans was the 13-1 win they picked up against us in 2002 (yes, that year again.) In addition, they did more damage in 2010 by eliminating us in the semis and some Indonesian fans allegedly hurling abuse to the team. Fast forward to four years when the Azkals return the favor to the gallant yet deteriorating Indonesian squad.

Vietnam, although losing the 2010 and 2012 battles against the Azkals, used to have it easy against us. They did not worry about beating the Filipinos, what concerned them was the number of times they would score versus the Philippines. It looked the opposite in the 3-1 loss against Vietnam with the home team respecting the abilities of the Filipinos in the pitch. They played arguably their best football to steal top seed from us. In barging through the semis for three consecutive occasions, the Azkals just did not file their intentions of taking home the Suzuki Cup for they have completely wiped out the minnows label that has long kept the Azkals leashed.

What makes this year different than 2010 and/or 2012? Obviously, a lot but nothing bigger than the affirmation of the Philippines’ status as legitimate title contenders.

In 2010, people were awed by how the Azkals made noise by pulling a string of successful results in the group stage (a win and two draws for the perceived underdogs is considered successful against difficult opposition.) People wondered how far they’d go and bowing to Indonesia in the semifinals is not the most surprising outcome at all.

Two years ago and the Filipinos were still not regarded as serious title contenders in the region. The majority was curious whether they could prove that the 2010 charge was no fluke. The Azkals did just that by making it to the semifinals again, only to lose narrowly to eventual champions Singapore. It was a valiant attempt to take Philippine football to the next level.

This year, the Azkals went to the tournament as contenders having been the best team in Southeast Asia as long as only FIFA rankings are concerned. The Philippines worked their way up by stacking up wins against (by their standards) weaker teams. The 2014 edition of the Suzuki Cup provided the Philippines an opportunity to become more than the best among the rest and go for regional football domination. The days of moral victories are all in the past now.

Gone are the moments when the Philippines lose by wide margins year after year. We have moved on from an era when the Azkals look listless from time to time, when keeping clean sheets feels like winning championships, and when people shun the Philippines’ football team both here and abroad. No more tears of hopelessness from fans like me who were told not to “waste time” in supporting a “lost cause” known then as Philippine football. What people tell me now are questions about the Azkals’ chances of becoming champions in every tournament they join.

Now that the Azkals seem to gradually climb up and eventually may find their way in winning more silverware in the future, some have begun to manifest support for the team. An underwhelming few find it annoying that bandwagoners and fair weather fans have been increasing the number of supporters in recent years. For me, however, that is more than welcome. The sad truth in Philippine sports (or maybe in general but intensely apparent in the country) is that people would, more likely than not, never bother supporting a team in their tough times.

Sports has been arguably the most powerful tool of patriotism in the post-World War II era. It reinforces positively the idea of nationalism and collective identity in which we all have a share on and can instantly relate ourselves to. Football is definitely a prime example to restore our confidence in what we can do together while operating around a framework governed by accorded standards–quite similar to nation-building. Bottom line is one does not need to know sports from the start. One can begin with the burning desire of supporting the country and go on to admire the sport. Just like how millions of self-proclaimed casual boxing aficionados started liking boxing as many Filipinos have already made their marks in the discipline. I do not see a reason for us to keep football from receiving the same love the very passionate Filipino people can give.

As I say all these, I look forward to Saturday night as an opportunity to write another recap article for work see a huge flock of Filipinos supporting the Azkals not just for Philippine football but the country’s sports sector as well. It is always sad to hear about people complaining about tickets selling out, but that’s actually positive for it demands more.

If you haven’t hopped onto the bandwagon, you shouldn’t think it’s too late, because any time is the right time to unfurl the banners and belt out the cheers for our national team. Go Azkals Go!

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