Allow us to crib a line from Cool Runnings, that film about the legendary Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics: “Following the 2010 Suzuki Cup, the Azkals returned to the Philippines as heroes. When they return to the group stages of the 2012 edition, they will compete as equals.”
Two years ago, the Philippines sent shockwaves throughout Southeast Asia when it defeated defending champion Vietnam, 2-0, on their very home field. The win sparked a football craze in the Philippines that has not abated one iota since.
The Philippines was then ranked No.151 in the world by FIFA. But after the Azkals' incredible run we moved up one notch higher, at that time our best finish ever since the football governing body began to publish its rankings.
And now we return to the group stages of the 2012 Suzuki Cup ranked No. 143 in the world. (Thailand is No. 146, while Vietnam is No. 138. The close rankings amongst the teams mean two things: this is going to be a hard-fought tourney, and that the Philippines will be in the mix of things).
We've also been crowned champions again, ending a 99-year title drought in international play when we won the Peace Cup (the former Long Teng Cup). The Azkals are also the first Philippine squad to reach the third round of the World Cup Asian qualifiers. We also captured the bronze in the AFC Challenge Cup. In between, the nationals have drawn twice with regional champion Malaysia in home and away matches and beaten Singapore on their own turf.
One thing is for sure, no one will be taking the Azkals lightly.
Team captain Chieffy Caligdong is confident that the Azkals will have a stronger showing this year.
At the send-off dinner for the national team last November 7 at the Eastwood Richmond Hotel in Libis, long-time national striker Phil Younghusband had goose bumps. “They showed video of the 2010 Suzuki Cup and my hair stood up," said the star striker. "That was such a different time. But it seems like it was only yesterday, really.”
Goalkeeper Eduard Sacapaño is another long time veteran who is keen to make a return. The Azkals has vastly changed since 2010 with more Fil-foreigners now on the squad. But with starting keeper Neil Etheridge and second keeper Roland Muller unsure of their participation, Sacapaño just might mind the nets again for the Azkals. “Malaki yung pagbabago ng buhay ko mula nung 2010,” related the Philippine Army keeper. “Gumanda yung career ko and kahit papaano nakilala tayo. Yung pagkakataon ko na mag-start nung Peace Cup ay malaking tulong sa aking kumpiyansa. So excited din ako makatulong sa national team sa Suzuki Cup.”
Chris Greatwich, who played a huge role in that 2010 run (he scored the winning goal against Singapore and one against Vietnam), is in town and is hoping for one more run in the biennial regional tourney. “That (2010) was a statement for Philippine football," said Greatwich. "This one is taking the next step.”
The Azkals will first go up against host Thailand on November 24. The match will be played in the cavernous Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, home of the Thai national team. The Philippines has never beaten the Thais and find themselves in a veritable group of death not just with the War Elephants (as the host team is nicknamed) but also with 2010 foes Vietnam (who they'll face on the 27th) and Myanmar (November 30) in Group A. Vietnam for sure is aching to get back atus, even if they somewhat repaid that debt during the 2011 Southeast Asian Games (read: they trashed us) while Myanmar has always been a tough foe.
“Not an easy group to be in,” noted midfielder James Younghusband. “But if you want to be the champion you might as well play the top sides.”
With only eight countries in the competition (Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, and Singapore comprise Group B and will be playing in Kuala Lumpur), only the top two finishers of each group will advance to the semifinals in the home-and-away format.
Azkals coach, Hans Michael Weiss, receives a horseshoe wreath from Suzuki Philippines officials.
The Philippines will play one more friendly match before the Suzuki Cup when they face Singapore in Cebu on November 15. After the friendly, the national pool, currently with 35 players, will be pared down to the 22 who will make the trip to Thailand.
Some familiar faces on the side of the triumphant 2010 side will not be seeing action in this tournament. The list includes former skipper Aly Borromeo who is still recuperating from an injury that sidelined him in the last UFL season; right back Anton del Rosario, who has fallen out of favor with team management; while military men Yanti Barsales, Peter Jaugan, Joebel Bermejo, Reymark Palmes, and Roel Gener are not on the current pool as is Fil-German Mark Drinkuth.
In their place are new fixtures Angel and Juani Guirado, Misagh Bahadoran, Jeffrey Christiaens, Carli de Murga, Paul Mulders, Demetrius Omphroy, Patrick Reichelt, Lexton Moy, and Jason Sabio.
“It’s a stronger line-up,” summed up an excited Phil Younghusband. "The quality on this new team is much better. Who knows what we can accomplish this time?”
Well, here's hoping they eclipse 2010!
Show your support fellas, and watch the games live at AKTV and Hyper. The Philippine-Thai match is set at 9:20 PM on November 24; the Vietnam match is on Nov. 27 at 6:30 PM; and Nov.30 against Myanmar at 9:20 PM.
WITH REPORTS FROM GELO GONZALES
PHOTOGRAPHY: MAJOY SIASON