Starweek Magazine

Fierce as an Azkal

- Alexa Villano -

MANILA, Philippines - Basketball and boxing... these are the two sports Filipinos are obsessed with. Even as the rest of the world was riveted by last year’s World Cup matches, interest in the country was sporadic, and perhaps a good part of that was because of Paul the prophetic octopus.

But one football match changed all that.

The Philippine Azkals were making a name for themselves, but were still under the radar when they faced Vietnam for the qualifying match at the Suzuki Cup in Vietnam last Dec. 4. Expectedly, they were the underdogs but when they pulled off an upset and won the match 2-0, football suddenly figured in the national consciousness, the team became overnight sensations, the new darlings of Philippine sports. Their win has been called one of the biggest upsets in football history, since the Azkals, ranked 151st in the world, blanked out defending champion Vietnam in the Suzuki Cup in Hanoi. The team even made it to Sports Illustrated magazine, their stunning upset picked as #10 in the magazine’s Top 10 football stories of the year. When the team played against Mongolia last Feb. 9, supporters trooped to the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod and wildly cheered them on to a 2-0 victory.

Of course it helps that the team is a good-looking bunch, and many of them could easily pass for commercial models and movie stars. But fortunately, their performance on the turf gives reason enough for the adulation.  

Phil Younghusband tries to get the ball through a wall of Mongolian players (above). The Azkals are looking to repeat their victory on March 15 in Mongolia.

Team manager Dan Palami says that he’s not surprised by the attention the team has been getting, but it’s not over until they hurdle the next game set in Mongolia on March 15.

“It’s not surprising but very overwhelming and right now you could see everything on the Internet. I know some were trying to get tickets to fly over to Bacolod to watch the game. But to see it on the web and to see the warm bodies are two different things and when you see these people cheering for you, it only happened to the team in Bacolod so far,” Palami says.

“It’s gratifying to see people of different ages, genders, geographical areas of residence and different political affiliations and to see them all – we suddenly realized that it’s not just a cliché that football is a unifying sport,” he adds.

While the Azkals have brought football to center stage due to their recent victories, Palami has long been sure that there were fans of the game in the country.

Goalie Neil Etheridge keeps the Mongolians scoreless. Photos by Jun Mendoza/STAR

“I always knew there were a lot of football supporters in the Philippines even before the game in Vietnam. The only difference I think was that years before, there were no reasons for them to come out and celebrate. They were hiding behind the anonymity because there wasn’t anything to celebrate,” he says.

All this has changed since winning the match in Bacolod and Palami says they are taking the attention in stride and know that they must prove it’s not just an overnight thing. “We’re quite appreciative of what’s happening. We’re a work in progress and we need to sustain the interest because some say its temporary, a flash in the pan. We need to keep getting good results in international games,” Palami admits. Their goal right now is to make the team not only a powerhouse in Southeast Asia but in the whole of Asia.

The Azkals – a play on the colloquialism for mongrel, askal or asong kalye – have a total of 37 players on the roster, 23 of whom will be going to Mongolia. Several of the players belong to teams in the European and Asian circuits, but suit up for the Philippine national team. Goalie Neil Etheridge, whose father is British and whose mother hails from Tarlac, is a goalie of Fulham in England. The popular Younghusband siblings Phil and James, also Fil-Brits, used to play for Chelsea. Left winger Chieffy Caligdong, who scored the first goal against Mongolia in Bacolod, is with the Philippine Air Force and plays for its team.

The Azkals show off their winning form against the Mongolian team in Bacolod.

While the team is composed of Filipinos and those with Filipino blood, Palami says the difference lies in the training, especially those who played in football clubs abroad. But the coaching staff and foreign players who played with the team are very impressed with the Filipino players. “Given the chance and had they had the training, they would be playing in the elite teams,” Palami says, referring to the English Premier and Spanish League.

Team captain Aly Borromeo believes that the local players play a big role in the matches. “The core of the team, the local players, pretty much the chemistry is there,” he says.

With the Azkals in the thick of preparation for the game in Mongolia, Palami admits that one major concern that they have is the climate.

“It’s the one factor that we have yet to be tested. The reason why we’re very concerned with it is because we’ve seen the players of Mongolia play, we’ve seen the conditions, we could dominate the game. But I don’t think any of the players have any chance to play the game at subzero temperature. Until they are on the pitch and I see them play, that’s the only time I can relax,” he says.

On the cover: Chieffy Caligdong celebrates with his teammates after he scored the country’s first goal against Mongolia.

And while many fans have pinned their hopes on the team to bring the county finally into the World Cup, Palami says they are flattered and are hoping for that one day.

“We’re just in our infancy and the rest of Southeast Asia and Asia have been into the sport with a full program for a long time already. That’s what we need, a long-term program to make sure that we are ready for the next level. It’s our dream to be there (World Cup) but we know wishing to be there and getting there are two different things and we really need to work hard to make sure that we are ready.”

The popularity of the Azkals is not only confined to the Philippines but has spread to other countries as well. Many of the players – among them the Younghusband brothers and team captain Aly Borromeo – have been offered to play in Asian football clubs, which Palami says is an advantage for them. “It’s good for the team. We’re assured that the clubs in Indonesia or anywhere will take on the responsibility of training them, make the investments, and their salaries will give them the financial returns and ensure they are on a competitive level.”

After one of the biggest upsets in football history, the Philippine team celebrates their victory over defending champion Vietnam

Now that football is gaining popularity in the country, Palami says that the team is even more determined to succeed. “The team has for a long time been trashed, the whipping boys in a match. But now that they’ve tasted what it’s like when they win, I think that’s what’s going to motivate them. This adulation, the screaming fans, is a result of their hard work. I don’t think they would let go of that, but will work harder to make sure the campaigns they join would be successful.”

Basketball and boxing may still be the national obsessions, but Palami says football is a sport that Filipinos can definitely sink their teeth into next. So has the time of Philippine football come? “It’s dawning. It’s not yet the peak. We’re still far from saying we are successful but we have to start somewhere – and this is a start.”

STAR president and CEO Miguel Belmonte (center) welcomes Phil. Football Federation president Nonong Araneta (left) and chairman Johnny Romualdez (right), Azkals team manager Dan Palami (second from left) and players Aly Borromeo, Roel Gener, Nestor Margarse, and Ricardo Bacite when the team visited The STAR recently. Joey Mendoza/STAR

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