The Philippine Azkals’ Victory: A cinematic moment, a template for the Philippines at its best


Under the Philippine flag at the football game between Philippine Azkals and Sri Lanka
Proudly holding up the country's colors at the Philippine Azkals game vs Sri Lanka

I was literally right under the Philippine flag when the National Anthem started playing to signify the beginning of the second match between the Philippines and Sri Lanka for the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Everyone stood at attention, with some holding the flag up above their heads with their left arms, while their right hands were on their chests. It’s been a while since I last heard the National Anthem sung this loud and, this time, I knew that everyone sang it with pride.

Just as the game started, rain started to pour. What we at first thought would be a drizzle or a light shower quickly turned into an all-out downpour, and some of those who were out on the Kaholeros’ side of the stadium started jumping and dancing, welcoming the water and relishing in the drama of it all. The OC side of me wanted to take cover, but I let my inner child out and danced around in the rain as well, remembering the good ol’ days when it was safe to do that, and allowing myself to just live in the moment. The rain and the accompanying wind were refreshing—the perfect setup to what would be a remarkable afternoon.

Panning around the unfolding events in the Rizal Memorial Stadium, the scene looked straight out of a Hollywood movie. There was the audience enduring the rain for the sake of their beloved team, the drummers intensifying the beating of their drums, and the team swishing and sliding but still managing to maintain great footwork and control. If someone were to shoot a movie in one take, this would have been the perfect moment for it.

Early on in the game it was apparent that the Azkals were in fine form. The “lay” football fan in me noticed a lot of great footwork and passing among the team and a lot of goal attempts early on in the first half. According the football chronicler @roymondous’s blog entry, “The Perfect Moment in Football History”, we had 13 attempts in the first half, versus Sri Lanka’s two. The action was almost always on the Philippine goal side, while whatever attempts Sri Lanka had made to get control of the ball were easily squashed by great offensive playing as well. Chieffy Caligdong, who had given us the historic Mongolia goal, as well as the set-up for Nate Burkey’s goal in Sri Lanka, was a strong, consistent player. I also noticed that Ángel Guirado y Aldeguer, who until this game seemed to just have been waiting for his moment to shine, turned in a great performance, with a lot of goal attempts.

Further from Roy’s blog:

“The team really showed their class, putting together several smart passing moves throughout the game. Chieffy Caligdong set the team on their way after dribbling in the area past several defenders before firing into the bottom left corner on the 19th minute. Controlling much of the possession the team had several chances with James Younghusband forcing the Sri Lankan goalkeeper into a fine fingertip save. Despite the chances it seemed like the Philippines would take a slender lead into half-time until Phil Younghusband beat the Sri Lankan defence for strength and rounded the goalkeeper to score the Philippines’ second goal of the game on the 43rd minute.”

Out on the stands, in the heart of the booster squad called the Kaholeros, the energy was palpable. Football fans, musicians, footballers, and novices (like me) alike were all one in chanting, drumming (some with the “aquadrums”—five-gallon water bottles—that had been used particularly for this game, others with whatever they had on their hands), shouting, dancing, and simply having a good time. After the 40th minute in the first half, the crowd decided to make its first big wave, and just as the wave had passed our area—SWOOSH! In came the second, albeit controversial, goal from Phil Younghusband, as if right on cue! It was unbelievable! That made me think that there really might have been a Big Omnipresent Director out there this afternoon, adding the Hollywood effects to this beautiful game.

The second half proved to be just as exciting, with every member of the team showing full control and great teamwork. James Younghusband set up that wide open goal that allowed Ángel Guirado to score the Philippines’ third goal, and Neil Etheridge was in top form all throughout, crushing every attempt by Sri Lanka to score even just one goal. It was evident that Sri Lanka was panicking under the pressure to score, and a penalty kick awarded to Phil Younghusband allowed him to score his second goal and clinch our decisive victory.

We WON!!! The crowd was jubilant, and after the formalities were over, the Azkals paraded around the stadium, waving at their countrymen in pride, and dancing to the beat of the drums when they headed over to our side. At one point, Ángel Guirado, a Filipino Spanish born in Malaga, kissed the flag that he was holding, looking grateful for this country that embraced him and his playing.

And just as the day was ending, the sun came out to complement the lights in the stadium, casting a slight orange glow, as if crowning our country’s victory with some light from above. It was again another cinematic moment, but one that could no longer be captured by even the best cameras and best experienced live. This is how things should be here, I thought. From the beginning ‘till the end, we all showed up and participated with pride. We proudly held up our country’s colors, we sang the National Anthem, we helped to create an environment that was positive and festive—and we even made sure to avoid jeering when one of the opponent’s men went down. There was fair play, there was positive energy, there was hard work, there was cooperation, there was teamwork. It was a moment that truly showed the Philippines at its best, and if this could be the template for everything else that we would be doing henceforth, I don’t see why we can’t step out of the doldrums and capture the world’s attention—not just for playing great football (or boxing, or music)—but more importantly, for being the little country that truly could.


Philippines’ first football film features “futkaleros” of Tondo

In a country that is totally, inexplicably obsessed with basketball and with dreams of slam-dunking a hoop that is too high for the ordinary Filipino, it took a team named after mongrels to finally make people realize that maybe, just maybe, they were meant for another sport altogether. After the Azkals’ stunning victory over Vietnam at the Suzuki Cup semis in December 2010, Filipinos started embracing football—finally catching up with the rest of the world and understanding why this sport inspires devotion.

Happyland the Movie (official movie poster)

Before all that, however—before “Fil-fors” became a buzz word and before Younghusband became a brand name—a group of young men from Tondo were already immersed in the sport, playing football (or, more accurately, futkal as in futbol sa kalye or “street soccer”) as if their lives depended on it. Many of these players would not have had access to sports centre amenities, or even the ability to play online games, such as website or the popular soccer-based game, Football Manager. Yet many of them have still be drawn towards this sport, using what facilities they were able to get their hands on. In many ways, such was the case. For the mentors of these young footballers, it was a way to get the boys away from a life of vice, and crime; for the boys themselves, football was a way out of desperation and a way closer to hope.

This is the backdrop of filmmaker Jim Libran’s second feature film, Happyland. Set amidst Tondo’s garbage dumps, shanties, rugby sniffers, gangs, and thieves, the movie tells the story of how a group of young men discovered the value of their lives and dreams through football, under the wings of Father Jose, a Spanish missionary priest inspired by the life of Filipino football legend Paulino Alcantara (who scored 357 goals in 357 games), and Brother Pedro, played by real-life Futkaleros founder, Peter Amores.

A brotherhood with a mission

For Libiran, Amores, and everyone who made the movie possible, Happyland was more than a film: it was a brotherhood with a mission. When asked how long it took to train the young Tondo residents in the science and art of football, Amores revealed that it took two and a half years to turn the boys from a ragtag team of kids into a proper football team that was competing and winning in tournaments. Libiran shares that the project is greater than the movie itself: it is an integrated social program aimed at giving young children hope through football. For him, the Futkaleros component of the program was just as important as the movie itself. So while Libiran and his team were sourcing funds and support for the film, they were also teaching football and building a community.

At last night’s premiere of Happyland’s final version, Libiran disclosed that there were plans to bring the movie—and the program—to other parts of the country that were in need of such a program. He appealed to the audience for continued support for Happyland—“Otherwise,” he says, “this will be our last time to show it.” The film cost around Php12 million, and as of press time Libiran’s team is still sourcing funding and support to finish paying for the movie.

Beyond Happyland

The movie is based on true events, and as Libiran’s cast shared after the screening, the boys on whose lives the movie was based have moved on to better lives. One of them has finished school and is now employed and with a house of his own. A number have gotten scholarships. Beyond the movie, this is the effect that Libiran wants Happyland and the Futkaleros program to have on many more Filipinos who need it.

To those who want to support Happyland, please refer to the information below:

At a time when the Philippines is finally embracing football, it is also time to embrace its message and to show that from the dumps and mud can rise legends that the country can be truly proud of.

Introducing the soldiers of Team Azkals

Team Azkals: Chiefly (left), Roel (right)

The whole country was excited when the Home and Away soccer game was announced and that it was to be held in the Philippines. When Panaad Stadium was chosen to be the venue, it was much to the delight of my fellow Bacolodnons and Negrenses.

The game is a welcome respite from a wave of corruption scandal in the Armed Force of the Philippines that has brought much anxiety and frustration to Filipinos.

From the moment Team Philippines’ Azkals arrived in Bacolod, screaming teenagers and staunch supporters crowded every place they visited. The team and Coach Michael Weiss indulge their fan’s excitement.  They allowed them to picture-taking opportunities with the players, sign autographs and scrapbooks!  They even allowed them to be stalked up to the hotel.  You can imagine this gave hotel security enough headache to deal with. Some even addressed Coach Weiss as Daddy Coach much to the amusement of the always smiling coach.

While the rest of the team members were crowded by the adoring fans, I took the chance to talk with the Ilonggo players. As a new soccer fanatic, I learned one surprising fact.  I found out that almost all pure Filipino players on the team are mostly soldiers from the Philippine Army and the Air Force.

According to 28 year old Chieffy Caligdong, and a member of the Philippine Air Force, he has been with that team for 10 years already. He and considers the current attention given to the Azkals as a big plus factor to the sport itself. Now that the Azkals are famous, he is hoping that the younger generation would follow their footsteps by playing soccer too. He added that the team is built on the strong foundation of players’ camaraderie with each other already.  The idea that they are raising the flag of the Philippines whenever they play, is good enough to make them prouder as soldiers, and as players as well.

When asked about the advantage of being an Azkal, 35 year old Roel Gener, and a member of the Philippine Army, said that the team is inspired to work and play harder to influence the youth to be involved in soccer and to, at least, gain support for them to win more games for the country.  Financial support was scarce during the time when the team was still struggling, and was practically unknown to the general public.

Although there are still some who are skeptical as to how long they will be able to sustain the interest of the public towards soccer, the Azkals, are hoping that their fellow Filipinos will continue to support the Team win or lose.

The soldiers in the team are still aiming big with hopes that someday the Azkals will join the likes of Brazil and Spain in games like the World Cup.  They are taking everything one step at a time. Their hearts are strong, and that serving the country is their topmost duty and interest.

Members of the Azkals who are from the Philippine Army are Roel Gener, Ricardo Becite, Nestorio Margarse, Eduard Sacapano.

Members of the Azkals who are from the Philippine Air Force are Chieffy Caligdong,Peter Jangan, Reymark Palmes, Joebel Bermejo, Ian Araneta and Yante Barsales.

Philippine Azkals wins against Mongolia Blue Wolves, 2-0 (updated)

Philippines Azkal scores second goal versus Mongolian Blue Wolves

The Philippines recently discovered football. It has been years in the making, but with the stunning campaign of the Philippine Azkal team, football in the Philippines is on the map!

As of half-time of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup, the Philippine Azkals led the Mongolian Blue Wolves 1-0. According to ABS-CBN sports there were over 18,000 people at Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City to watch the Azkals play against the Blue Wolves.

When the Azkals scored that first goal, Twitter was raining “Ggggoooaaalll!”

Azkals, Bacolod, Phil Younghusband were trending topics worldwide on twitter.

There was even a blue-haired fanatic! See this video by Drealkulit:

According to Kulit, “Apparently, local police weren’t amused when this face-painted, blue-haired guy tried to rally the crowd by running around, waving the Philippine flag. LOL”

In the closing minutes of the game, Phil Younghusband scored the 2nd goal for the Azkals. You can imagine the euphoria as the crowd from Panaad Stadium, all across the country, and into social networks like Twitter and Facebook burst into bliss!

@NINAesque tweeted, “Dear @PhilYHusband, your sex appeal just skyrocketed. As if you aren’t sexy enough. #Azkals win 2-0”

@ellobofilipino wrote, “After weeks of scandals and shame, the #Azkals gave us something we can be proud of!”

In a bit of humor, @ssowy tweeted, “Umiiyak raw si Mr. Shooli.” Mr. Shooli is a Mongolian character from Philippine pop culture.

“#Caligdong,” @junetwentyone tweeted, “is ur best argument for why #football should be the sport for Pinoys, not basketball: short, quick, talented #azkals”

@liadcruz said, “To all the sports people who flew to Bacolod: nakakainggit naman kayo!!!! Haha!”

The euphoria is so wild, you could mistake it for the Philippines winning the World Cup, and not just a game.

@buwayahman described the scene at Panaad as, “Mayhem!”

(update) Over at Asian Correspondents, Carlos Conde wrote, “Azkals and the end of basketball’s reign in the Philippines.” Mr. Conde quoted Journalist Kenneth Guda, who wrote on Facebook, “Suddenly lots of Pinoys have become football fans. By the way, there’s a PBA tonight. Anybody watching? 😉 To which a friend replied: “Basketball? What’s that?”

Philippines versus Mongolia, AFC Challenge Cup Pre Qualifier game takes place on March 15, at Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

@SagadaSun aptly put it, “#AZKALS Next Stop– ULAN BATOR– then the Rest of the World !”

The Azkals show the benefits of migration

Earlier this year, a video on Youtube of Prof Winnie Monsod delivering her traditional and much awaited last lecture for the semester went viral. In it, she appealed to her students at the University of the Philippines, my alma mater, to remain in the country after graduating.

Recently, I came across a bunch of fresh migrants to South Australia, my home since 2005. I came here on a spouse visa because of my wife a Filipina whose family migrated here back in the mid-80s. Unlike me, these recent arrivals came here on a skilled or employer sponsored visa. Some of them, ironically were contemporaries of mine at college, but I only made their acquaintance here through mutual friends.

Having been former students of hers, Prof Monsod’s video inevitably came up in conversation. We concluded that perhaps after paying our dues during the early part of our working lives, the country had benefited enough from our toil and talents. Many of us would have preferred to stay, but in order to provide a better environment for our kids, we reluctantly decided to make the move.

The experience of immigration can be a bit harrowing and lonely. Not only do people back home look at you differently when you return, but you also feel a bit left out among the locals of your host country. The irony is that despite having lived in two countries, you end up never really fitting in in either one.

Prof Monsod’s lecture spurred a debate within the global Filipino community about the merits of migration. Many supported her sentiments about staying home. Some say that those who leave the country permanently are turning their backs on it and have lost their sense of patriotism.

Yet, the Philippine national football squad, appropriately named The Azkals, demonstrate the benefits of such migration. Of the 22 athletes that comprise this team, eight of them or more than a third, are of mixed national origin (mongrels in other words as their name suggests which means street dogs in tagalog).

You have the five players of Filipino-English descent: the Younghusbands, Phil (aged 23) and James (aged 24) who play forward and midfielder respectively; Neil Etheridge (aged 20) the goalkeeper who plays for English Premier League club Fulham (all three of them trained in the Chelsea Football Academy, Phil being the leading goalscorer of the youth squad); midfielder Christopher Greatwich (aged 27) who as a youth played for Brighton and Hove Albion and now coaches under-20s in the US; and lastly, Rob Gier (aged 30), a defender, plays for Ascot United in the Hellenic Football League.

Apart from them, there is  the defender Ray Anthony Jonsson (aged 31) who is Islandic-Filipino and plays for Grinavik in the Icelandic Premier League; midfielder Mark Drinkuth (aged 19) who plays for Agon Dusseldorf; and midfielder Jason De Jong (aged 20) who plays in the Eerste Divisie club Veendam in the Netherlands.

Having triumphed in a stunning upset over defending champion Vietnam at the Suzuki AFF Cup during the group stage, these players and the rest of the Philippine squad have captured the imagination of the nation. The Philippines had at one point languished at the bottom of the FIFA world rankings. It was at 195th place out of 200 countries as recently as 2006. With the stellar performance of the team, we are now placed at 150.

There is much to be desired in the development of football as a national sport in the Philippines. The fact that the remainder of the team came predominantly from the Philippine Air Force or Army shows the lack of support from the public towards the formation of a commercially viable football league.  The lack of a stadium to host a semi-final match with Indonesia demonstrates our inadequate sports infrastructure. Then there is the absence of a grassroots youth development program.

Despite all these infirmities, the nation has woken up to the possibility that these young boys represent. Through their dedication and passion not only for the game, but also for the country in which they did not grow up in, but nevertheless have an attachment to as a result of their ancestry and upbringing, these players are proving to be the anti-thesis of Prof Monsod’s argument.

It shows that Filipinos everywhere can still make a contribution to the nation by exploring opportunities that would otherwise not exist for them back home. It demonstrates the capacity of our nation to learn from the experiences and mixed heritage of Filipinos overseas. These athletes are proving to be worthy ambassadors not only of the sport, but of the country. If this is a sign of things to come, then we have every reason to be confident about their future and ours.