Philippines vs Malaysia - SO CLOSE...

Another football match for our men’s National Football Team, the Azkals, and they faced a worthy and accomplished opponent for this fixture. It may have been only a friendly match under the FIFA calendar, but the PFF had chosen no less than Malaysia, the defending champions of the AFF Suzuki Cup, to test the mettle of our Azkals. Considering that the Azkals will be off in a tournament in about a week, this was a pretty good challenge for the national team to prepare them for the AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal.

Higher than the Philippines in the FIFA rankings, and widely acknowledged to be the much better team, the Azkals were the underdogs in this match. The last time the Philippines beat Malaysia was 21 years ago at the 1991 SEA games. The succeeding occasions in which we got to face Malaysia on the football pitch have always been in Malaysia’s favor.

That’s not surprising of course. While the growth of football in the Philippines has gained momentum only recently, Malaysia had undertaken a long-term and effective grassroots development program to be where they are now. Based on interviews with the Malaysian coach, the core of their current squad were formed 10 years ago, back in the youth levels and were carefully nurtured and supported as they went up the ranks. Aside from being the 2010 Suzuki Cup champions, Malaysia is also the back-to-back champions or gold medalists in ASEAN U23 football for 2009 and 2011. Evidently, they are force to be reckoned with in the region and definitely posed a tough and skilled opponent for the Azkals.

Aside from serving as a warm-up match for the AFC Challenge Cup, the Azkals coaching staff and players described this friendly match as a gauge by which the progress of the Azkals can be measured following the renaissance of Philippine football sparked by that amazing run to the semis of the 2010 Suzuki Cup in December 2010. With Malaysia’s footballing pedigree, the match was indeed a very effective gauge by which we could assess where we stand in terms of football in Southeast Asia.

Well, the match did prove that the Azkals had been making steady progress and improvement since December 2010. Boy, were we so close to causing an upset and replicating that remarkable feat in 1991. The match ended in a draw, but despite the horrible condition of the pitch and Neil Etheridge’s choice of shorts (my husband and I thought he was planning to play golf instead of football, still swoon-worthy :), the Azkals put in a sterling performance.

We took the lead in the 34th minute through a diving header from Denis Wolf and held on to it until the Malaysians equalized in the first minute of added time. So close…

While we didn’t come away with a win that would have been well deserved had we done so, we could take heart that the team played really well and caused a lot of trouble for the Malaysians. This wasn’t the gallant stand of circa 2010 where we would absorb the pressure and take advantage of quick counters via route one. This time around, the Azkals played at a less frenetic pace and tempo, and did so with more composure and purpose. I could tell because my husband was a bit calmer watching the match – hardly any swearing or abuse being hurled at the referee.

This was an enjoyable match to watch. To me, teams were evenly matched, it was quite an open game in various periods and control of the match would shift back and forth. It was nice to relish the ebb and flows of the match. Of course, the fact that we were doing very well against the Malaysians further adds to the satisfaction. Being objective about it, the draw was a fair outcome. The Azkals showed that their neighbors in the region should start viewing them more seriously and the Malaysians worked for their equalizer.

Photo courtesy of www.sktdigital.com.ph

Most of all, I enjoyed those little moments that make football such a beautiful game. I agree with my husband that aside from the strategies, skills, techniques, and the tactics, football is also a game of inches and moments of team or individual brilliance that can make a significant impact in a match. A matter of inches to the left, to the right, higher or lower, and that’s the difference that could spell the outcome of a match. A brief moment of instant and almost telepathic connection between players in a team that result in a mesmerizing move and interplay with the ball can likewise determine the outcome of a match, not to mention leaving you standing there with your jaw almost hitting the ground in awe. Then of course let’s not forget the moments of individual brilliance and genius of the players. This is what football is about, and the match had its share of those little moments.

Angel Guirado hitting the post was one of those moments. A few inches to the left and that would have gone in and we’d have been 2 goals up. Not to mention that the shot was made possible by a pretty nifty bit of skill by Angel to get him just that little amount of space to make that shot. Inches and a moment of brilliance, and we were so close to causing an upset. Of course, it also was a moment of brilliance for the Malaysians that got them back in the match and salvaged some pride for their side. A skillful change of direction that took out Jason Sabio and gave the Malaysian player just that little bit of space to place a shot just beyond the reach of Neil Etheridge. A moment of brilliance and a few extra precious inches of space, they were so close to losing and we were so close to winning. Kind of felt sorry for Jason Sabio there as he was playing very well in that match, solid in defense for most of the match. But as they say, “es futbol,” and that’s why I really love this game.

So, honors even between the Philippines and Malaysia on the 29th of February 2012, not bad Azkals, not bad at all. We were so close to causing an upset. While there is a common phrase that goes “so close, yet so far,” in this case, viewing it from a footballing perspective and where the Azkals stand in terms of Southeast Asian football, it’s more like “so close, and no longer so far away.” Congratulations Azkals and once again you give us all reason to continue believing.

2012 Moira G Gallaga©