Oh Dear Azkals, What Have You Done This Time? (Azkals at the AFC Challenge Cup)

Oh dear, oh dear! What have the Azkals have done this time? They really can't help themselves can they? Do they need to keep doing this? Yes. Why? Because they have to. 

So what is it they have done this time? Well, they just achieved another historic milestone for Philippine football by defeating 2006 AFC Challenge Cup champions Tajikistan 2-1 to advance for the very first time in our footballing history to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup. Not bad, not bad at all. What's more, this isn't over yet. They actually have a fair chance of making it to the finals, and if they get there, who knows? This is football, and in this sport, anything can happen. However, let's not get ahead of ourselves, one step at a time. 

But before we delve into this highly significant development in the history and progress of Philippine football, let's provide an added sense of perspective and look back in time. We actually don't have to look back that far, we only have to go back to as recently as the AFF Suzuki Cup of 2010. The years before that, let's just say those were the dark ages. Okay, perhaps not really the dark ages as they were a few moments here and there, but for those who have been following Philippine football most of their lives, you know what I mean.  

So what has happened in the short period since December 2010 from which the renaissance of Philippine football is reckoned? Frankly, quite a lot. Beginning with that first time entry into the semi-finals of the Suzuki Cup that involved defeating the defending champions Vietnam and holding ASEAN powerhouse Singapore to a draw. Even the 1-0 losses to Indonesia in the two-legged semis was a very credible result and a marked improvement as our country proved to be no longer the region's whipping boy in the sport.

This was followed by successfully qualifying for the AFC Challenge Cup. We played in the first edition of this tournament in 2006 but there was no qualifying stage. We immediately were in the group stage where we failed to progress due to goal differential against Tajikistan (Revenge is sweet). The following tournaments in 2008 and 2010 we failed to qualify when qualifying stages were eventually introduced. For this current tournament, we had to hurdle Mongolia in a two-legged knockout match. Up next was a qualifying stage in Myanmar where we faced the hosts, Bangladesh and Palestine in a group format with the top two going through to play in Nepal. The Azkals squeezed through that one with 2 draws and a win. 

In between, the Azkals also managed to reach (again for the very first time in our football history) the second round of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, eventually bowing out to a highly skilled and strong Kuwaiti team. 

Now, the Azkals have gone out and added a much bigger feather to their cap by reaching the semis of a major regional tournament. Finding themselves in the group of death along with 3 previous champions of this tournament and having to deal with a looming investigation and likely sanction for charges of sexual harassment on some of its players when they get home, the challenges were quite formidable indeed for our National Football Team. 

However, as is their habit, the Azkals find it within themselves to rise to the occasion and give their all for flag and country, not to mention for all their supporters who have shown faith and belief in them all through this time. A loss in the opening match, a convincing win to keep their chances alive and a winner take all match which they win by scoring two goals in the second half after going a goal down at the very end of the first half - a compelling storyline if there ever was one, couldn't have been scripted any better for such a momentous and historic achievement. 

They have come a long way in such a short time. They have worked hard, played with great commitment and heart, and hurdled considerable challenges along the way. They truly deserve this accomplishment and should not be denied the corresponding glory. Yet, this isn't all. It isn't over yet. On Friday, they have yet another opportunity to go one step further, another shot at making dreams come true for the Philippine football community and its fans and supporters.  

Turkmenistan stands in their way next and typical for the Azkals, it is always never an easy road for them. Key players Angel Guirado (Man of the match against Tajikistan) and James Younghusband will be suspended for the semi-final match. However, the back line is still intact and so is the central midfield  pairing of Mulders and Juani Guirado which gives the team some defensive stability. It is a matter of stepping up on the offense to compensate for the absence of Angel and James. 

What will be going for the Azkals is confidence and momentum. If they can relieve themselves of the pressure of expectation and continue with the progress they have been making they have a decent shot. They have already achieved their goal to reach the semis. This is farther than we've ever gone before in football, any further progress is icing on the cake. So relax Azkals, enjoy the moment and play your hearts out, and who knows what will happen next. 

So what have the Azkals done this time again? Well, aside from making history once more and bringing football back to life in the Philippines, they have made us proud as a country and a people. If you can't appreciate that fact, then I feel sorry for you. More than that, they have also gained us some measure of respect. 

Photo via GoalNepal.com

It's only football others will say, well that's my point, because it is football it matters. It is a sport that matters to literally hundred of millions of people in every corner of the world. The World Cup is bigger than the Olympics, football matches elicit passion in levels way above other sports. Football has been responsible for starting a war in Central America, yet it is also responsible for initiating a truce between an African government and rebels seeking to overthrow that government. Heck, even in the recent SEA games, Indonesia may have come out over-all winners of that competition but their victory isn't complete because they lost the football gold to Malaysia who really relished the fact that they got the gold in the event that really mattered for them and the Indonesians. This is the context in which we should be viewing our place in the global sport of football, the beautiful game - it matters and we have a fairly good chance of being competitive in this milieu if we really put our hearts, mind and resources into it. Perhaps this is also why its rise in the Philippines is causing fear in those who don't understand or can't accept its rising prominence in the Philippines. 

Football in the Philippines has been marginalized for a long time, never given a second thought until its recent success. Now it is challenging the order of things of our sporting environment and it is making a number of people and some quarters uncomfortable. Come on guys, let me say just one word - reality. Football has made its mark, and on its own merits by the way. Government had nothing to do with this, it is people with heart, passion and commitment who have made this happen. Embrace the phenomenon, take it into our hearts and allow it to prosper.  

This is just the beginning of a project, a dream, a vision that is slowly making itself a reality and a very distinct possibility. The Azkals have done it again and is showing us the way, giving us reason to believe and to feel proud. So let's do our part as well and start acting as one country and one people and let's get behind this project and support not only the Azkals but the growth and progress of football in the Philippines as well.  

In the meantime, Turkmenistan stands in the way of further glory, go Azkals! We believe! ...and why do I get this sneaky feeling that these guys are going to end up doing something again in a few days time? 

2012 Moira G Gallaga©