• Going for glory

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    “Heart” carried the Philippine Azkals past Maldives in their semifinal match, 3-2, that could have gone either way in a virtually mortal combat lasting 120 minutes or 30 more than regulation play to seal a championship showdown with Palestine at midnight today in Male for the AFC Challenge Cup football trophy.

    Arguably “heart” did, but obviously playing and coaching skills, plus the support of the outnumbered but unsinkable Filipino fans who cheered Phil and “Schrocky” and Amani and Daisuke until early dawn of Wednesday in the Maldives capital, made possible the historic victory.

    Skipper Rob Gier summed it up why they were in a tiny country in the Indian Ocean for the cup just before the extra time: The Philippine campaign will not end here (losing to Maldives). He did not leave his five-day-old baby in England only to go home by letting the host team beat the Azkals.

    His words apparently sank in and his team delivered, much to the agony and dismay of the home crowd who had expected nothing but a win. But that’s football or any other sport for that matter.

    Back in the Philippines, it was unlikely that many waited for the Male match to begin, having been raised on basketball but that football itself is being mentioned in the early-morning news now should already warm the hearts of the minority who are enamored with the “beautiful game” that Pele and Paulino Alcantara (yes, he’s a Filipino) played then and Ronaldo and Chieffy (yes, he’s an Azkal) do now.

    Ugly was the futbol scene in the Philippines until the early part of the last decade, with the pre-Azkal teams sneered at by counterparts in Southeast Asia (let’s not even talk about Asia and the rest of the world], declaring, for example, how many goals they would bury the Filipinos with.

    Not anymore, the likes of Indonesia and Vietnam don’t, the Philippines and the Azkals having gained respect in just about five short years from 2009 in a sport that packs stadiums to the ceiling in most of Asia and the rest of the continents.

    Then came the foreign-born Filipinos, who were eventually recruited by local football authorities and then and now Azkals general manager Dan Palami and who helped turn around the game into one where we stand a chance of making it to the world stage not in a million years anymore but in the not too far future, perhaps.

    The Azkals head coach, German-American Thomas Dooley, seemed to agree, saying after the triumph over Maldives that he wants his team to be able to play with the “big boys” in Asia first and the world next.

    Not to take anything away from the Giers, the Mullers, the de Jongs or any other so-called Filipino-foreigners, Dooley in the few months he has been national coach seemed to have reconciled the presence of the “Fil-foreigners” and that of the homegrown Azkals.

    In run-up friendlies to the Challenge Cup, he fielded Ruben “Balot” Doctora, Patrick Deyto (goalkeeper) and a few other unhypenated Filipinos who did not disappoint in repaying his trust and belief in them as athletes first, apparently proving that these locals can rise to the occasion like their foreign-born teammates.

    In the Azkals-Red Snappers semifinal tussle, Dooley’s boys played like crazy as did the Maldives guys (the two sides played more than the equivalent of two basketball matches), their bodies soaked in sweat, their knees getting it in tackles, their sides struck by wayward elbows, but nobody played dumb or just went through the motions of finishing the punishing encounter.

    Understandably, the match turned physical in extra time where there was pushing, shoving and, from we were seated watching the game on TV, cursing by players from both sides toward the end of the game.

    Expect those emotions to surface in a football match because, for the Maldives players, losing before an expectedly highly partisan crowd of 8,000 or so was not an option. But that they did meant that they failed their fans and their country.

    But that’s football, where passion is supposed to be part of it all and where big, tall men cry in victory and defeat, fans go wild either way their teams fare and where the trophy-hoisters are heroes for life, enshrined as immortals.

    Win or lose in their game in Friday midnight’s finals against Palestine for the lone ticket to the Asian Cup in Australia in 2015, the Philippine Azkals are already heroes, we suppose, in many a Filipino’s heart.

    They will come home to a country that seems to be slowly warming up to football.

    Private sponsors have shown interest and perhaps reacted with mild shock at the inroads that the game is making in the country, as attested to by televised football matches (even of UAAP football games!), Philippine football honchos continue to drum up the sport in the grassroots (and not necessarily Barotac Nuevo only), pitches are made over (the one at venerable Rizal Memorial Football Stadium is turning green), a business tycoon has laid out a field at The Fort, stadiums in the cities of Bacolod and Cebu are finding use as sites for friendlies and internationals.

    Take a bow, Azkals, and good luck against Palestine!

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