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Ever wondered what it would feel like to walk into a bar in this country during the World Cup and see a swarm of supporters all hailing the Philippine National Football team? [firstpara]
Ask that question a year ago and you’re either going to a) get laughed at or b) have your sanity questioned.

Ask it today and you’re going to get an enthusiastic response on the dream of one day competing on the grandest stage of competitive football.

Thank you, Azkals.

Over the past few months, the name ‘Azkals’ has become a part of Filipinos’ everyday lexicon. You do know we were referring to the Philippine National Football Team. Just in case there’s any confusion.

Pretty-boy good looks notwithstanding—this team seems to have captured ‘matinee idol’ status —the Azkals have thrust themselves into mainstream consciousness after a string of impressive runs in the world football stage.

Their performance at the Suzuki Cup last December caught the attention of a nation that wanted nothing more than to see these boys succeed.

Sure, the team ended up losing to the Indonesians in the semis, but even that became sideline news compared to the effort of the team, reciprocated by the showing of love and affection given by the Filipino people.

Now to be fair, the team still has a long way to go to keep up with the Rooneys, Messis, and Ronaldos of the world. Success, after all, isn’t born overnight.

As much as the Azkals have made positive steps towards being relevant these days, it’s both shortsighted and unfair to expect immediate results from the team. There will be games where they won’t be as sharp as they should be. There will be games when the legs get really heavy. And there will be games when the team could very well get smoked out of the water against vastly superior competition.

But what the scoreboard won’t tell you is this: throughout this entire impressive run, the support for them has steadily built up.

No longer is the Philippine National Football Team irrelevant, an afterthought that has been a punchline more than it has been a headline.

The Azkals have given Filipinos a team that they can root for,a team that we can proudly call our own.
The increasing number of fans is as much a testament to the team’s improved play on the pitch as it is about the way these boys play. They may not be the fastest and most skilled of the pound, but these Azkals have no shortage of heart, determination, and a sense of nationalistic pride. Who wouldn’t want to root for that?

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In the grander scheme of things, it’s not so much about results and improving on world rankings as it is about developing interest from casual and die-hard fans, alike. People who barely had a passing interest in Philippine football are now tweeting their favorite players, offering cheers and support in ways that seemed scandalous and hopeless not too long ago.

Break the dam and the water will fall, so they say. The overflowing support these boys have been getting is a testament to the way they come to play every game: hard hats on, hearts rolled up their sleeves and a determination to make their countrymen proud. From a nation that has gone accustomed to mediocrity in the sporting world, these Azkals are a splash of fresh water.

Who knows, maybe when we go into bars and watering holes to watch a future World Cup game, we’ll go through the doors and a see a stream of red, white, blue, and yellow screaming and cursing in unison, instead of the cacophony of colors belonging to nationalities we don’t have any ties to.

Because in as much as we enjoy rooting for those teams, as a buddy of mine points out, “there’s no greater feeling than wearing our colors and cheering for our own team.”

And in those words, short and simple as they may have been, he drove home the point of what each and every Filipino feels about thisupstart group of overachievers that have captured and captivated all of us.

The Azkals are our own team, and no amount of hooting vuvuzelas can drown out the cheers and screams we’re going to have for our boys.

WORDS BY: KIRBY GARLITOS

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