Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Galactic Azkals

Am I the only one who looks at a suspicious eye at the way we seem to suddenly scour the world for any footballer with half a pint of Filipino blood in them?

It is obviously great and important that we have these Fil-foreigners, seemingly coming from nowhere, knocking at our doors to suddenly want to play for us. It seems that the famed Filipino global diaspora has finally borne fruit, albeit in the arena of football. This however raises quite a few points of interest.

To label them ‘bandwagon players’ is every bit as harsh as labeling new Azkal fans (and football fans for that matter) as ‘bandwagon fans’. But you just couldn’t help but get this nagging feeling that somehow they weren’t as willing to be called up to the National Team when we were still struggling, or when the game wasn’t as popular here. That somehow, there was just this wee bit of hesitation to join a losing effort, or a lost cause, as it seemed for a time.

Which, of course, gives 10,000 respect points for the people who DID stick around. Both pure Filipinos and Fil-foreigners, alike. The mantra of ‘me against the world’ is not a new one. Successful managers have used this ‘siege mentality’ to galvanize players to form a winning team. And that winning team was almost in the form of the Azkals, as we bucked an indifferent and apathetic Filipino nation (pre-semis) and a hostile crowd (Bung Karno) to almost go to the Final.

To say that the bond between the players and the battle scars shared in the 2010 Suzuki Cup are priceless would be the understatement of the year. Even a thousand training sessions will never replicate the chemistry, cohesion and the shared bond between players and coaches.

Which brings us to this point in our fairly recent history.

It is understandable, nay, perfectly justifiable to send in a new German Coach. Given the impending support by the DFB. And perhaps to bring along his requisite Fil-German players. The lack of a coaching permit brings with it the perfect excuse.

It just doesn’t seem right.

I don’t recall the Dutch FA punching the speed dial to van Marwijk to give him the boot, not after he just lead the Oranje to an unexpected runner up finish. Did anyone really think Joachim Low was in any danger of being sacked? His German team didn’t make it to the final!

The PFF has its reasons, of course. And this falls under the category of ‘Football is Football’, whatever it means.

Secondly, the second comings of the German versions of the Younghusbands have me a wee bit worried. Local-based players have been marginalized as it is. It may be that they have the same level of talent, but not the same level of training and exposure. But what does it say if you train, week in, week out in the Philippines. Be a star performer in the local UFL, and yet knowing at the back of your mind that even if you score hat-tricks every other game, your slot in the final roster is threatened by Fil-foreigners who just jetted in a week before the tournament?

Granted that this problem is not endemic to the Azkals. Team selection and team chemistry has and will always be a problem for National Team managers, who only have a few days with them before sending them out to the battlefield. Club and country have wrangled and will always be at odds regarding the releasing of players for international duty.

However, football is a team game, where teamwork plays a crucial role in its success. We do not just throw in 11 star players and expect them to win it all. Especially 11 star players who hardly know each other, and whose egos may fill the entire pitch. Real Madrid found that out the hard way. Manchester City is finding out now. I hope the Azkals won’t have to go this same route. A sound and proper approach should be put in place, and perhaps not just a wanton selection of Fil-foreigners. We all agree, at the end of the day, talent is still talent. But not talent for the sake of talent. There are 11 different positions in the football pitch. And the beauty of the game is there are different roles to play in every position. The trick is getting people to perform together as one in the team. Fil-foreigners or Filipinos.

The 12th position and thus the 12th player on the team is the PFF.
Bottom line, we hope that the powers that be in Philippine Football know what they are doing. There’s unprecedented interest in the sport in general and in the Azkals.

Consider that the last game played by the Azkals was on December 19, 2010. And on January 11, 2011 was just the first day of practice. Yet social networking sites and media have been constantly barking out news items with primetime news airing clips of the training session. The training session!

Lastly, we would do well to avoid the mistake of Vietnam in the 2010 Suzuki Cup. Being burdened by the heavy expectation might be a millstone around the Azkals necks. After all, teams would know us and would have prepared mightily for us. The days of the Azkals being an unknown entity are gone, at least for now.

The pressure to win on home soil might be to our own undoing. We would do well to feed off the positive energy from our fellow countrymen instead.

James Younghusband said that in order to sustain the football momentum, ‘We should keep on winning.’ Do just that, Jimbo, please.

But with emphasis on ‘we’.




* This article first appeared in The Bleachers' Brew by Rick Olivares on January 12, 2011.

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