Thursday, March 31, 2011

All thanks to the game: An Azkal afterthought.

The Philippines settled for a scoreless draw against Palestine March 23, putting them in a dangerous albeit dramatic situation of a no-more-tomorrow challenge to beat Bangladesh in the next 2 days.

At that time, the National team has already survived 2 devastating earth quakes, and weathered a stressful game that took Phil Younghusband, their prized striker, away from them in the most important playoffs of their lives yet. A day before the match, veteran Yanti Barsales was battered down, goalkeeper Neil Etheridge was having digestive issues, and Rob Gier had flown out of Rangoon into Britain to his pregnant's wife aid. Not only did they have to win, they have to win over a team fresh from a rout victory over Myanmar- a squad they were only able to draw 1-1 at the start of the group round. The pressure was on and the circumstances were not helping.

All of this the nation is only seeing through Twitter updates from the team and the media contingent who were allowed in to Burma. The Azkals had to almost literally rely on just themselves to go through the final hurdle.


The Bengal Tigers were in it to win it. They matched the Azkals in attempts in the first half, some proved to be quite a scare but the Fulham reserve stayed formidable in front of the net; each save a defeaning 'NO!' for the Bangladesh offense. Four days before that, Neil Etheridge posted on his facebook page he was "still hurting" for conceding the last-minute goal from Myanmar that robbed them of 3 win points, that could've given them a much-needed advantage over the other 3 teams in their group.

At the Aung San Stadium, though, Etheridge looked determined to not make the same mistake again.

For 90 minutes, he didn't. He kept a pristine sheet, while his team mates tear the pitch apart for a 3-nil trashing en route to history. From bottom 8 to top 8 of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup.

The Azkals kept going to James Younghusband in the first half. Even Etheridge was trying to spare them the work by kicking the ball from the goal all the way to front yard to James. Playing without Phil, James has become their golden boy. The Chelsea-bred striker was the clear choice, but when newbie Angel Guirado saw an opening, it was for Ian Araneta to hit home.

Sgt. Araneta, the Azkal veteran, broke his 11-game silence with a 1st goal loud enough for the Philippine Twitter land to hear. In the game's 41st minute - within those seconds, Filipino sport fans converted their loud cheers into tweets that brought a virtual stadium down.

Ian's shot wasn't textbook perfect. But for what it meant to the All-Filipino Air Force hitman, who have been with the Azkals since day 1, and to the million supporters who were dying to take over the driver's seat in a do-or-die duel, it was no more than we could ever ask for. To Ian Araneta be the glory.

Their confidence up, and the odds in their favor, the Azkals were on a roll. Two minutes after the 1st goal, James had his eyes on Ian, who was poised for a back-to-back. But the Bengal goalie wouldn't allow an embarrassment; met Ian and stopped a meltdown.

Unfortunately for them, Angel Aldeguer-Guirado was just heating up and he wasn't looking to settle for a 1-0. Araneta returned the favor and fed Guirado the ball, who then - with all his might - headed it like a dagger straight into the net and into the Bangladesh heart. The two defenders who joined the goalkeeper at the post were caught flat-footed and stunned by the lightning that jolted an entire nation.

35 minutes to go, the Philippines had fashioned a 2-point cushion, and had dominated the Twitter trending topic list. Angel Guirado on an upper spot, Ian Araneta below him, and - this not confirmed to be Azkal related but I'm pretty sure - "Great Header" just spots down.

The future was looking ultra bright. By this time, Twitter has been flooded with different versions of Guirado-adoring tweets, and right then and there, the Philippines has found its new Angel.

And it wasn't looking to stop soon. At the 63rd minute, Guirado released a header, his eyes on Yanti, which, despite a slightly aching body, he translated into a bicycle kick that could've been monumental if it wasn't for an offside infringement. Still, the stadium has become an Azkal land, and they were giants stomping on Bangladesh, who were staring to look little.

Around the 70th minute, the Azkal offense found James Younghusband all alone upfront, the Bengali goalie all his to attack. James looked like he hesitated and ended up fumbling the ball over to Anton del Rosario at the side, but by then the Bengal defense was full-force and the Kaya defender had no other choice but to just wing an unproductive shot.

The clock ticking away; all hopes fading for Bangladesh, their dreams barely breathing which at the 80th minute, Guirado ruthlessly killed with a roller. Philippines: 3-0.

Every fan "watching" the game through Twitter was ready to hug their computers, or the person next to them. It was one of those moment I just wanted to stand up, sing the National Anthem, and run around with the flag crying.

The minute I saw the PFF's tweet "FULLTIME," I was ready to die, and so were everybody who had it in their hearts to see the Azkals succeed.

In that extraordinary moment, though separated by miles, and shut off from communication, the country has never been more one.

And now we are onto the World Cup Qualifiers, an aspiration that we wouldn't even have thought to consider. As hard and ambitious it may be, now the country has actual hope to reach such immense international platform, that hope actually justified.

The World Cup is actually a possibility, and we all have reasons to believe again, all thanks to the game.