Down by a goal and on the brink of elimination, the Young husbands tried to weave their magic, perhaps, for one last shot at glory before they retire.
Playing a two-man game, Phil and James kept the ball on the left flank, passing it to each other as if it was weaved to their legs. Then Phil located fellow forward Iain Ramsay wide open on left corner. But instead of doing things on his own as the Tajik defense was collapsing on him, he issued a precise cross pass to a much wide open Kevin Ingreso. The Fil-German, with only the goalkeeper in front of him, headed a volley straight to the goal—his first goal in an international tournament.
That tying goal was enough to send the Philippine Azkals to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup for the first time in history.
But a tie was anti-climactic for that historic moment. A win is still a win, and it is the best treat to cap off the Azkals’ decades-long pursuit for recognition. In the first minute of injury time of the second half, veteran skipper Patrick Reichelt absorbed a foul from a Tajik defender inside the penalty box. And to ensure the win, Phil Younghusband, Philippine football’s poster boy since Paulino Alcantara a century back, sank his 50th career goal—literally the match’s golden goal—to break the tie.
It was the best way to end the night. It was December 2010 all over again—when the ragtag Azkals team, who could not even afford to host a home game, blanked ASEAN powerhouse Vietnam, 2-0, in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup. The win graced the banner headlines of several Philippine dailies. While the Azkals would lose in the semifinals against Indonesia, that single win over Vietnam made football a popular spectator sport that rivalled basketball and volleyball. Phil Younghusband became a superstar and a hot showbiz item. Even his less-heralded brother James and homegrown talents Chieffy Caligdong and Ian Araneta had commercial endorsements. The United Football League (UFL), then the country’s commercial football tournament, received regular coverage from TV 5. The University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) football tournaments also had regular TV coverage. And all the succeeding games of the Azkals were covered by ABS-CBN.
But defeat after defeat in the AFC level made the Azkals lose its mainstream popularity. Gradually, game attendance dwindled. The Azkals even had to relocate to Bacolod for football is more popular there. By 2016, UFL folded down while the Azkals was no longer covered by ABS-CBN. UFL’s successor, the Philippines Football League (PFL), was organized in 2017 but it has not received TV coverage as well. But during those trying times, the Azkals accumulated wins in the dark, with only a few of us knowing.
It is also saddening that, aside from last night’s Azkals victory, nobody is also talking about the national women’s team’s entry to the AFC Women’s Cup, which will happen two weeks from now in Jordan. The Malditas secured the ticket after drubbing, coincidentally, Tajikistan, 8-0, in the latter’s home turf in Dushanbe in April 2017. The Malditas will battle host Jordan, Asian powerhouse China, and ASEAN powerhouse Thailand in Group A. This tournament deserves mainstream coverage and we must rally behind our women’s team.
As for the Azkals, their opponents in the 2019 Asian Cup will be determined on May 4.
The Younghusbands and Neil Etheridge were there when the Azkals rose to insurmountable heights in December 2010, becoming instant celebrities. And while their luster has faded, they stood still and are still there, loyally leading the national team to its greatest achievement in the modern era.
If it took eight years for the Azkals to be competitive at least in the Southeast Asian level and the lower tier of Asia. As for the Malditas, it took fifteen years for them to return to the Women’s Asian Cup. It was worth the wait and even if it will take a decade for our squads to reach the World Cup, we must be there cheering our teams.
Make football popular again in the Philippines.