It’s incredible how things can change in the span of a couple of years. One moment you’re an incredible underdog story; the next, a disappointing underachiever.
The Azkals are still five months shy of their much-awaited return to the Suzuki Cup, and already the predisposition of the people has been altered dramatically. They were the whipping boys of the Southeast Asian region, when Filipino football fans were few and far between, and had very little to be excited about.
Back then, if the team avoided a complete hammering, we’d smile and list down the positives. If a goal was scored, which didn’t happen often, we’d go completely bananas. If the team won, there’d be crying on the streets. Grown men, straight up losing it. Surely, all kinds of questionable dancing as well.
In the leadup to the competition that sparked the nation’s football fever, no one could have fathomed that the Azkals would go on a historic run to the semifinals, stunning defending champion Vietnam on their home ground along the way. It was a spectacular achievement, one that propelled football to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. The fans were in a state of delirium, intoxicated with delight over the fact that the “dark ages” were coming to a close. Suddenly there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Finally there was once again a hopeful belief in the sport’s development.
It’s almost been two years, and the landscape of Philippine football has changed. The Azkals are setting records, pushing farther than ever in the World Cup Qualifying and snagging third in the Challenge Cup held in March. The players are now household names, with popularity that extends beyond the sport of football. The spotlight is shining brighter than ever.
But with success and attention unfortunately comes expectations. And after two consecutive friendly draws to regional rivals Malaysia and Indonesia, there are already circles that are voicing displeasure at the rate of improvement. The general argument is that, with all the “superior” players at our service, and the team being at its “strongest ever”, we should at this point be beating opposition quite comfortably.
Clearly the people have been galvanized to aim much higher given the recent successes, and that just goes to show how incredibly quick the Azkals have grown in quality and stature. But is this current unrest justified?
To be honest, if you’d told a Pinoy football fan two years ago that the Azkals would make the 2010 Suzuki Cup semifinals, get third in the Challenge Cup, and then arguably get the better of Malaysia and Indonesia, he’d laugh, then smack you for being ridiculous. Few would’ve been bold enough to imagine we’d be in the process of a spectacular transformation of an infamously ignored sport. It just wasn’t the type of thinking that the state of affairs inspired. Yet we are here, in the building stages of what fans hope will be the foundation for countless years of football prosperity. Exciting times. You’d think so anyway.
It’s worrying how critical the people have become of Azkals’ performances. We’re getting dangerously close to applying too much pressure to a team that should be given the space to grow in a positive and freeing environment. It was difficult not to be irked by those dripping with disappointment, saying the national side were not yet the finished article. Of course they’re not. Should they be, after just a year-and-a-half into a groundbreaking developmental process? The national football team has been constantly growing, evolving, and adapting to new players and systems. It’s impressive that they’ve still managed to get the big results while in a clear transitional period.
People have forgotten what endeared the Azkals to the Filipinos in the first place.
In 2010, coach Simon McMenemy took his overwhelming underdogs, and masterminded the downfall of a regional heavyweight. Playing ultra-defensive, and hitting on the counter when the opportunity presented itself, it was by no means a glamorous style of football, but it showcased the extreme grit, discipline and determination of a team that had no quit in them.
That’s what it was that made the Azkals great. It wasn’t the good looks, the diverse ethnicities and celebrity hoopla that captured the Philippines. It was how the players wore their hearts on their sleeves, giving everything they had for their country’s cause. The results almost became secondary, with the performances themselves worthy of immense praise. Stories of how Phil Younghusband and Rob Gier overcame pre-game sickness to star against Vietnam underlined even further the fact that these guys were, and are completely devoted to the cause — all that you could ask for from a team representing your country.
The critics have sprung though, and they’ve been busy calling for changes. Most of them fail to appreciate though the extreme character the Azkals once again displayed in twice coming from behind to equalize against Indonesia — the second of which coming right after a melee that saw the Filipinos reduced to nine men.
Sure, with the discrepancy in shots and possession, we perhaps should’ve walked away with more, but was the result a failure? I’d say far from it. As long as that fervent passion continues to run high in the squad, I refuse to be concerned. But if you listen to what some have to say, you’d think we’re one step away from a total meltdown. How did we become so critical of a side that should be commonly accepted as “under development”?
Did anyone speak of how Indonesia dropped deep and opted to defend the result rather than put their man advantage to use? Perhaps a handful. The Merah Putih were put to the sword at the end by a numerically challenged team, and they were clearly relieved when the final whistle was blown.
I didn’t hear too many harping on about the heart our team showed. Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that in back-to-back games against regional rivals, we’ve proven we can now comfortably compete toe-to-toe? Even with numerous changes we were able to impose ourselves for long stretches against an Indonesian team that once destroyed us 13-1. Surely more positivity should be circulating given we’ve also done nothing but lose to them since 1977. Instead the high horses have come out.
Do we really want to be a thorn in the side of the Philippine national team, an extra hurdle that they need to overcome to obtain success? Or can we find it within ourselves to be that encouraging friend that helps them achieve the next level? God knows negativity and cynicism has dragged this sport into dismal depths in the country’s past. Is it too much to ask that we learn to savor our development instead of finding ways to tear it apart? Opponents are already eager to send our team crashing back to earth in the 2012 Suzuki Cup, it’d be nice to think our players won’t have to deal with the added burden of unreasonable demands.
Managing expectations and understanding that the Azkals are still in their infant stage is key. Patience should be exercised. Enough with all the doom and gloom. Contrary to others’ beliefs, Philippine football is at an all-time high. We should all be extremely delighted, hopeful for bigger and better things, yet understanding of the struggles of development. More than ever, we should be completely behind this scrappy bunch of “stray dogs.”
Josue Jamlang covers football for InterAKTV and announces matches for AKTV on IBC. He served as an assistant technical director for the UFL during its maiden season. Off the Upright, his new column, sees him giving his take on various football issues. Follow him on Twitter for more football discussion.