For the past eight years, football had a resurgence in the Philippines, thanks to the monumental achievements of the Philippine Azkals, which inspired a generation of young footballers and fans in this basketball-crazy country. Reminisce eight years of glory by your Azkals in this four-part series brought to you by Fullcourtfresh.com.
It was a typically chilly December night in Hanoi, but the heat on the turf was scorching, what with a crowd of 40,000 partisan Vietnamese eager to witness how their beloved Golden Dragons would massacre the hapless stray dogs from the Philippines in the group stages of the 2010 ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup.
Meanwhile, in Manila, families had their rest day; some might have slept very early in anticipation of Monday’s traffic. Sports fans and “ending” bettors had their Sunday dose of basketball as the lowly Air21 booked a quarterfinals seat, defeating Rain or Shine, and in the first game, LA Tenorio led the Alaska charge to defeat San Miguel in the Philippine Basketball Association. Still, many were amazed on how Nonito Donaire rearranged Volodymyr Sydorenko’s face on the former’s bantamweight debut.
Back in Hanoi, the Philippine Azkals entered the pitch, fresh from a confidence-boosting draw against Singapore three nights before—a draw that meant everything for the lowest-seeded Azkals. Their opponents, Vietnam, defending champions of the ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup, came from a 7-1 rout of Myanmar. Worse, the Golden Dragons were backed by 40,000 screaming fans.
The huge crowd was no problem for the Filipinos. Unable to meet FIFA’s physical standards for their home stadiums in Bacolod, Iloilo, and Manila, the Azkals have been competing on foreign land for the past couple of years. The problem was how to allow only a few goals for Vietnam, at least playing a respectable performance for experience’s sake. The road to the Suzuki Cup group stages was in itself rigorous, with the Azkals advancing by defeating the tiny Third World nation East Timor, 5-0, in October in Vientiane but affording draws in their next matches against Laos and Cambodia.
The game plan from the beginning was to park the bus—an old English strategy—by clogging the path of the Vietnamese frontline and, if the Azkals gain possession, rush to their goal and eke out a quick offense.
The defense-heavy strategy resulted in Vietnam dominating possession. In spite of the Azkals’ defense, Vietnam’s superior offense resulted in a plethora of shots on goal which were all deflected by the 20-year-old Neil Etheridge. But in the 38th minute, right back Anton del Rosario fed midfielder Christopher Greatwich with a long cross. The Fil-British, the goal scorer of the Singapore game, absorbed the ball with his head, twisted his neck, and sank the header right through goalkeeper and reigning Suzuki Cup Best Player Duong Hong Son. After dodging bullets after bullets on the defensive end, the “park-the-bus” Azkals had their luck on offense with that goal. It was a deafening silence in Hanoi.
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Yet Vietnam plodded on relentlessly. Seeming to play with no quarters given, Vietnam struck four shots on goal only to be saved or deflected by Etheridge. It could have been 1-4.
With ten minutes left, the Azkals were now playing an increasingly desperate Vietnam charge. Receiving a ground pass, Phil Younghusband, the team’s best scorer who was marked by Vietnam all game long, tried to score a second goal but was deflected by Duong. The ball then landed on secondary scorer Ian Araneta and after a few dribbles, issued a pass to Greatwich, who had become a marked man. Greatwich then returned the ball to Younghusband, who eluded his defender by shifting left and striking with the left foot. Second goal by the Philippines. That time, the Vietnamese crowd cheered even if they were going to be defeated by a visiting team. Obviously, it was a cheer for the underdogs. After the final whistle, history has been made.
That was the “Miracle in Hanoi,” when, on December 5, 2010, the Azkals, considered as one of the weakest teams in Asia, blanked the defending champions Vietnam, 2-0, which propelled the Azkals into stardom. While that Suzuki Cup match was not shown on Philippine free TV, this basketball-crazy country woke up the next day with football on the front page of all newspapers. “If there’s a need for a close parallel, the country’s victory over Vietnam in Hanoi is like a win by Brunei over the Philippines’ national basketball team in Manila,” wrote veteran football scribe Cedelf Tupas on the Philippine Daily Inquirer the following day.
Before Hanoi, the Azkals were virtual nobodies not only in Southeast Asia, but also in the Philippines, except for its loyal support base in the Western Visayas. After Hanoi, the Azkals made headlines literally the world over, as their single feat was named in Sports Illustrated’s Top 10 Football Stories of 2010. All succeeding games since then were covered by ABS-CBN. The Azkals top players became instant celebrities and some had product endorsements to boot. Local football tournaments, such as the United Football League and the University Athletic Association of the Philippines, as well as club tournaments participated by the likes of Global, Ceres, and Loyola, were covered by mainstream media. Such hype came despite the Azkals losing in the semifinals of the 2010 Suzuki Cup.
It was a dawn of a new era in Philippine football. From Southeast Asia’s whipping boys (the Hanoi victory came eight years after the Azkals’ embarrassing 1-13 shellacking by Indonesia in the 2002 Tiger Cup), the Azkals were expected to be competitive at least in the lower tier of Asia.
Top photo from the AFF Facebook page.