Tue 28 September 2021

The Azkals’ road to glory: The Renaissance (Part 2)

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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.

Two months after their semifinal finish in the 2010 Suzuki Cup, the Azkals opened 2011 by entering the qualifying tournament of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, which was one of the qualifying tournaments for the 2015 Asian Cup. At that time, German Michael Weiss replaced Englishman Simon McMenemy as head coach.

The Azkals became a highly popular team and football, as a spectator sport in the Philippines, rivalled basketball and volleyball. From then on, all home games by the Azkals were packed to the rafters. All of their tournaments, as well as friendlies, were televised by ABS-CBN.

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The first stop was to hurdle Mongolia in a home-and-away match-up that commenced on February 9, 2011 for the first round of the Challenge Cup qualifiers, with the Azkals winning, 2-0, in front of the jampacked Panaad Stadium in Bacolod. In that game, homegrown Azkal Chieffy Caligdong scored arguably the most sensational Azkal goal ever—an aerial crossover then a nutmeg strike against the Mongolian keeper.

The Azkals would lose the away leg of the match-up in frigid Mongolia, 1-2, but the latter lost in the aggregate score (3-2) as the Azkals entered the second round of the qualifiers in Myanmar in March 2011.

A week later, the Azkals flew to Yangon for the five-day tournament, where they chalked draws against Myanmar and Palestine before blanking Bangladesh, 3-0, to qualify for the 2012 Challenge Cup. Ilonggo skipper Ian Araneta scored his biggest goal in his career while Fil-Spanish reinforcement Angel Guirado scored two succeeding goals in the match.

Stephan Shrock gets a piggy-back ride from Phil Younghusband as they wave to the cheering crown in celebration of the Azkals’ 4th goal.

The Azkals then joined the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Still being a low-ranked team by FIFA, the Azkals had to start from the bottom by facing Sri Lanka in a home-and-away. On June 29, 2011, the Azkals were saved by Fil-American Nate Burkey to salvage a tie, 1-1, in Colombo. Five days later in stormy Manila, the Azkals, in front of a riotous home crowd of 15,000, scored a dazzling 4-0 win.

Twenty days later, the Azkals met Kuwait—a team twice as strong as the 2010 Vietnam team—for the second round of the qualifiers but was stymied by the Middle Eastern powerhouse in the desert turf, 0-3. The Filipinos also lost their home game on July 28, 1-2, but it was nonetheless a treat for Filipino fans especially when Stephan Schrock hit a booming 25-yard goal to end the first half of that match.

Phil Younghusband strikes as David Beckham looks on.

The Azkals finished 2011 with an exhibition game against David Beckham’s Los Angeles Galaxy, losing to the visiting Americans, 1-6. While the game was a rout, the Azkals for the first time attracted such attention from the West.

They started the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup in Kathmandu with heads held high. At the same time, the Philippines’ biggest commercial football tournament, the United Football League (UFL), where most of the Azkals played, received per game coverage by TV 5 starting in 2012.

In 2011, the Azkals faced a selection of UFL players. The national team lost.

However, the Fillipinos lost its opener against eventual champions North Korea, 0-2. The loss was expected and it was not an embarrassing one, considering they were facing a team from the 2010 World Cup that has scored a goal against Brazil.

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Unfazed, the Azkals won their next games against India (2-0) and Tajikistan (2-1), with three goals from Phil Younghusband. The wins were enough to send them to the semifinals against a strong Turkmenistan team, where they lost, 1-2. The controversial game saw defender Carli de Murga wearing Neil Etheridge’s goalkeeper kit as the latter was ejected with a red card.

Still, the Azkals salvaged a podium finish in their very first Challenge Cup, defeating Palestine, 4-3, for third place. Younghusband had his best performance in an international tournament then, scoring six goals in five caps.

The Azkals drew with Indonesia, 2-2 on June 2012

In August, the Azkals faced another American club, the Chicago Inferno, in an exhibition game where the Filipinos lost, 1-3, in Chicago. A month later, they won its first international tournament, albeit a minor one, since 1913—the 2012 Philippine Peace Cup—with wins over weaker teams Guam, Macau, and Chinese Taipei.

But the real tournament was the 2012 Suzuki Cup in Bangkok. While the Azkals repeated against Vietnam, 1-0, they still could not win against the much stronger Thai team as they earlier lost against them, 1-2. Still, the Filipinos qualified for the semifinals but lost against an equal in Singapore, 0-1, on December 12. Their semis showing was underwhelming as, like in the semis of 2010, the Azkals failed to score a goal in the home-and-away. It would also mark the decline in home game attendance of the Azkals, as well as commercial mileage.

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