When I first began to cover the national team in 2006, I didn’t know much about them. I asked then head coach Aris Caslib which player I should interview. Without hesitating, he answered, “Caligdong.”
I made my way to Caligdong’s hometown of Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo, where he was on a brief furlough. The small town was abuzz with activity, as there was a large outdoor viewing screen that was placed in the football field in front of the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua. Never mind if it was three in the morning. It was the 2006 World Cup and the townsfolk had turned out to watch the sport’s showcase event.
“Everyone is here,” glowed Caligdong despite lacking sleep. “Parang fiesta.”
I wasn’t sure what to watch – the game or the people who knew so much about the game. Sensing my amazement, Caligdong gave me an overview of what the beautiful game meant to the Barotacnon.
“Sa probinsya kapag pinagusapan yung football, hindi involved yung pera,” he said. “Gusto lang talaga ng mga tao maglaro. Tulad dito sa Barotac Nuevo yung commitment talaga ng tao ay nasa puso. Naglalaro kami dahil mahal namin yung football. Parte ‘to ng buhay namin.”
Added Caligdong, the youngest in a brood of ten: “Joke nga namin magkakapatid sa parents ko, isa na lang pwede na kami magbuo ng football team.”
Even their jokes are football related.
At a young age, Caligdong engaged in “sinike,” seven-a-side football wherein kids play barefoot.
No socks. No fancy boots. And certainly no shin guards. Sinike places a premium on skills and passing.
“You had to be quick on your feet and in making decisions,” said Caligdong. “Dito mo makikita kung sino yung marunong dumiskarte.”
And that explains his ability to slalom through slow-footed defenders while making thunderous strikes with that golden left boot of his.
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After the Azkals played Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei to somewhat disappointing draws, the nationals needed a big-time win against bottom-feeder Macau. More than a win, they needed to score more than five goals against the former Portuguese territory if they wanted to bring home the 2011 Long Teng Cup.
Incredibly, despite dominating possession and shots on goal, the Filipinos remained scoreless in the first half. When you think about it, it was rather disconcerting that the team couldn’t find the back of the net against a lowly ranked team whose national sport is gambling. WTF!
Caligdong was on the bench as Fil-Belgian Jeffrey Christiaens took his starting spot on the left wing. The co-captain to Aly Borromeo was held in reserve because of the brutal tackling he had absorbed against Chinese Taipei two days earlier.
Christiaens gave a good account of himself with his pace, skill, and ability to link up with the team’s forwards in the kill zone. But after 45 minutes of play, the score line was an unacceptable nil-nil.
Azkals coach Hans Michael Weiss sent Caligdong in for the second half and to say that his impact was immediate is to damn him with faint praise.
He was inspirational.
His first goal didn’t involve a nutmeg, as when he scored against Mongolia in Panaad. But it was just as important. With time not on the Philippines’ side – coming into the game, the Azkals had to win by at least five goals to win the tournament – Caligdong’s first strike zapped life into his team’s attack.
Later in the half, sensing that Caligdong was on his game, Mark Hartmann found him with a well placed cross in the middle of the box.
Chest control. Quick turn. Bang.
Before Macau could react, Super Chief had already spread his wings in celebrating his second goal and fourth of the tournament.
The Azkals may not have exited Taipei with a trophy but the win over Macau and the five points accrued are still not bad. At least the team did not lose even when faced with the diving antics of the host squad.
All thanks to Chieffy.
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With a total of 14 goals for the seniors squad, Caligdong forces opposing teams to rethink their strategy in marking Phil Younghusband. The Airman First Class has become a dangerous scorer who forms a dangerous one-two punch with the Fil-Brit.
After scoring that brilliant goal against Mongolia in Bacolod, the co-captain of the Azkals raced to the touchline and turned his back to the frenzied crowd. He then jabbed his thumbs to his name that was printed on the back of his Mizuno jersey.
C’mon, Chief. Even before that brilliant goal, everybody knew your name.