Sunday, February 6, 2011

Great Expectations





Great Expectations



When Philippines Men’s National Football Team Captain Alexander Charles Luis Borromeo leads the team out to the pitch on the evening of February 9, 2011 in Panaad, Bacolod, he will feel an unprecedented roar and support never before heard of for Philippine football.

The thunderous roar and applause he and the other members of the starting eleven will hear, will be ones usually reserved in these shores for boxing heroes, billiards players, and with alarming infrequency nowadays, basketball stars. Accustomed to the jeering boos and taunts of opponents’ fans and the indifference of majority of our countrymen, these cheers from the appreciative crowd will indeed be music to the Azkals ears.

The birth of Philippine football was in the year 1907, but it might have well been reborn the night of December 2, 2010 in Hanoi, Vietnam when Chris Greatwich scored the equalizer against Singapore. With a penchant for the dramatic, both on and off the pitch, he described that the game against The Lions “..could be a watershed moment for Philippine football.” Well, it turned out to be the understatement of the year.

After nearly one and a half months of no on-field football action, we arrive at the threshold of the next Azkal game, where we will finally have home field advantage. The one home game we so craved and were deprived of last December.

This time. the mighty Mongolia awaits. Ranked 182 by FIFA (Philippines is ranked 153), on paper this should be an easy game. Toughened very recently by 2 Bung Karnos, 2 My Dinhs, 1 Thien Truong, 3 Kaohsiungs and countless UMaks, we should be fine. The core of the team is back. The spine of the side is still intact, coming back, and raring to go. From Neil Etheridge between the sticks to Aly Borromeo, Anton del Rosario, Ray Jonsson and Rob Gier at the back to James Younghusband, Chieffy Caligdong and Jason de Jong at midfield, to our two strikers, Phil Younghusband and Ian Araneta. Further good news : Young blood is being infused, a more experienced coach is at the helm.

But make no mistake about it, we should not treat this as a walk in the Panaad Park, if you may.

The loss of our top scorer in the 2010 Suzuki Cup and experienced international Chris Greatwich is a blow. His influence and experience on and off the pitch leaves a void in the middle of the park and in the dressing room. The arrival of a new coach barely 1 month before the game doesn’t exactly give him a very long time to prepare. More so because he has yet to even see in his very own eyes how our foreign based players play. Even more so because he wants to change the team to a more attacking side.

The need to have more attacking options is pointedly very obvious. We have not scored in the last 3 games, spanning 270 minutes of football. Having a solid defence, keeping it tight and midfield and hitting teams on the counter may work, but it has its own limitations, especially when we are chasing the game . As can be seen in the games against Indonesia, we cannot just dump the ball to the right wing for Phil Younghusband to take on 3 defenders. Lionel Messi, he is not. At least, not yet. Relying on Anton del Rosario’s long throw- ins to the box will only get us so far.

But exactly how you transform Greece in December to become Brazil in February is no mean feat.

The desire to play like Arsenal, as suggested by some, while admirably noble in its intention, forebodes defeat of catastrophic proportions if not done right. If every team played like Arsenal and Barcelona, we will have entertaining football all right, with fantastic results.

If unprepared though, opposing teams with discipline will expose cracks at the back and hit back at us with impunity. It takes time to build a successful attacking side. Especially for a team which built its success on being a successful defensive side. And February 9 may be a time too soon for us.

That said, whatever the team tactics and strategy, it is absolutely imperative that we win in Panaad. And hopefully, win comfortably. We cannot take a very slim advantage (or heaven forbid, a defeat) and risk capitulation against Mongolia in Ulan Bator. Set in an unfamiliar setting, and in an unfamiliar climate, our dog skin might not be thick enough to withstand the cold of the Mongolian winter and the heat of the Mongolian team’s pressure. We cannot risk it. We cannot afford to look at their ranking at be complacent. Remember that we were ranked even worse than that (189) as recently as May 2008.

Another factor to consider is that we are no longer an unknown entity, the anonymous team making up the numbers. The Azkals cannot rely on the surprise factor anymore. For good or bad, gone are the days when no one would give us a second look while doing their scouting reports.

The fact of the matter is, we have not won a game when the opponent did not take us for granted. As a matter of fact, we have even not scored a goal against opponents who scouted us, and took a very close look at our azkal scalp.

After getting results against Singapore and Vietnam, we may be considered unlucky not to have scored against Myanmar. However, the game against Indonesia proved that it would indeed take more than luck for us to have scored there. We were found out by the Indonesians, and we had no answer.

The last two aforementioned teams prepared against us and did not underestimate us, which, considering the attention Philippine football has been getting, is something we should grow more and more accustomed to from here on in.

Meantime, for the expectant azkal fan, destiny awaits. Be it the diehard football fan or the new convert, everyone is waiting with bated breath for  February 9. Airline Tickets have been booked, hotel rooms have been blocked off, and leaves have been filed.

The checklist will have been ticked off one by one :
Vuvuzela? Check.
Replica Home Jersey? Check.
Scarves? Check.
Face Paint? Check.
Philippine flag draped over my shoulders? Check.

Are the fans ready for the game against Mongolia? You bet.

Are the team and the coaching staff ready? They better be.

The Philippines, nay, the World is waiting.

Let’s go, Azkals!
Go get ‘em!






*This article first appeared in The Bleachers' Brew by Rick Olivares on February 5, 2011.
*photo from Anton del Rosario’s Facebook Fan Page

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