MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippine national football team came into the group stages of the AFC Challenge Cup with modest expectations, simply hoping to reach the semifinals. This initially seemed like a gargantuan task, given that the Azkals were grouped with nations that have previously won the tournament—North Korea, India, and Tajikistan. Such is a path of adversities.
It is easy to take the boys’ performances in a vacuum and rate them solely on how they fared against each opponent. However, in view of other recent events and external factors, it seems only fitting to step back and take a look at the social contexts where another fairy tale-like performance from the Azkals is set against.
Dr. Paul Stoltz, a thought leader on the science of mindset, introduced the concept of Adversity Quotient and defined it as “the capacity of the person to deal with the adversities of his life. As such, it is the science of human resilience.” Dealing with the challenges that lay ahead then expects for a mindset of overcoming them, of winning, of bouncing back. In a manner of speaking, take it as a lens through which the team’s performance could be seen.
At about the same time the team left for Nepal, Cristy Ramos’ sexual harassment complaint against Angel Guirado Aldeguer and Lexton Moy grabbed the headlines. Much has been said about the matter, but for the purposes of this piece, it is not far-fetched to think that such serious allegations have affected the collective psyche of the team.
Without intending to belittle the gravity of the sexual harassment complaint, it has presented another challenge to the Azkals—one that goes as far as questioning their raison d’être (recall the comments of why they had the gall to be allegedly crass when they haven’t even won anything yet).
And respond to the challenge the boys did.
The story in Nepal thus far
Despite a 2-0 loss to North Korea, the Azkals displayed a decent performance, holding strong onto defense for most of the match. Perhaps it was in the most unfortunate of circumstances when the Philippine defense had lapses that North Korea capitalized on. The opponents’ first goal was a result of Pak Nam Chol left unmarked, and second from Jang Kuk Chol taking advantage of Neil Etheridge momentarily fumbling as he attempted to clear the ball.
To Etheridge’s credit, he had made eight saves in the match, including one crucial save against Pak Song Chol, who had to retake a penalty due to encroachment.
Following the loss to North Korea and taking into consideration the results of the other matches in the group, the Azkals were faced with a “must-win” situation if they were to meet their objective. More importantly, the performance against North Korea made the boys believe that they can play with teams ranked significantly higher than them and created a momentum that they could ride on, going into the match against India.
If anything, this line-up of the Philippine national football team realized its potential versus India, with a total team effort delivering a 2-0 win—and the margins could have been even higher.
Phil Younghusband scored a brace in the match, even combining with his brother James for some passing work through India’s defense to grab the second goal. India seemed to be more determined to score in the second half, but the Blue Tigers were just not threatening enough, and the Azkals’ defense secured the ball from India’s strikers.
At various points of the match, Chieffy Caligdong, Paul Mulders, Angel Guirado Aldeguer, Misagh Bahadoran, and James Younghusband all provided scoring threats. Carlie de Murga, Rob Gier, Jason Sabio, Ray Jonsson, and Juani Guirado (moved up to the midfield) all provided adequate defensive cover.
The win versus India placed the Philippines in the same spot as Tajikistan, its next opponent, tying both in points and goal difference. This presented another “must-win” situation—and nobody in their right minds would want to settle for a draw, since penalty shootouts are the worst ways to determine the outcome of a match.
Versus Tajikistan, the Philippines proved it could match the Central Asians on the pitch. Both teams were pretty even at the first half, having been presented with opportunities to score. Tajikistan scored the opening goal from a corner kick right at the stroke of halftime—and awarding that was as controversial as it could possibly get.
Despite the deficit leading into the second half, the combination of Angel Guirado Aldeguer and Phil Younghusband yielded the equalizer, with the latter scoring. The former also literally rose to the occasion for the Philippines’ second goal, heading the ball over defender Alexey Negmatov. The win effectively made the Philippines meet its objective of reaching the semifinals and booking a match versus Turkmenistan.
That semifinal match versus Turkmenistan did not come without its own inherent challenges. James Younghusband and Angel Guirado Aldeguer were ruled out for incurring their second yellow cards in the previous match, while Jason Sabio, a lynchpin on the back line, was out due to injury.
Despite a decimated line-up, the Azkals took the early lead in the match, with a Phil Younghusband header off an assist from Paul Mulders. This, however, would be eventually negated in the last ten or so minutes of the match, with Arslanmyrat Amanov left open to strike the ball cleanly on the bottom right post. The heartbreak was realized when Gahrymanberdi Chonkayev beat Roel Gener, Juani Guirado, and Neil Etheridge to score Turkmenistan’s second goal. Compounding the Philippines’ concerns was Etheridge being sent off for kicking Chonkayev.
Personifying resilience, what it means to be a Filipino
Not all is lost for the Azkals. Despite the heartbreaking loss to Turkmenistan, the boys still have to battle it out versus Palestine for third place on Monday. The red card to Neil Etheridge means that the Philippines’ first-choice goalkeeper has to sit out of the match, but has since taken responsibility for his actions—a sign of a young player maturing under the spotlight, and who, by all indications, would probably wear the captain’s armband in the years to come.
A win would still be a fitting cap to a string of performances that displayed remarkable progress for a national team that has been dogged by controversies—including one that stemmed from a careless remark by a morning show anchor on local television, alleging that they are not Filipino (this is a sanitized version of what was actually said, which is perhaps gravely insulting to Filipinos with mixed ancestry and those Filipinos that have made inter-racial homes).
Such racist and derogatory remarks, as the official statement of the said anchor and subsequently, his television network, were taken out of context and that they were stated in reference to the sexual harassment complaint. In view of these, there are a few important things to point out: 1) race, ancestry, and cultural background should not have been used to discuss the sexual harassment complaint—it would have been more instructive to discuss the merits of the case once hearings before the proper tribunal would be set, and that the public would hear what each side had to say; and 2) for a media person with some level of stature and a leading television network, owning up to the racist and derogatory comments does not, in any way, compromise their stand on the sexual harassment complaint and neither does it diminish the validity of the said complaint.
If anything, the second external issue surrounding the Azkals has galvanized both the team and the supporters. There have been extended discourses on what it means to be a Filipino, but for the national football team, it is simply this—regardless of their ancestry, they have made a choice to represent the Philippines in the international stage, and they have made remarkable strides in making the region respect them for their skills, their teamwork, and the will to win in each match.
They say to be a Filipino is to overcome challenges and adversities given any situation, to show resilience and strength of character. They may be flawed and far from perfect, but judging by how the Azkals performed in the AFC Challenge Cup, they have personified what it means to be a Filipino.
And regardless of the outcome versus Palestine in the battle for third, the boys have already proven themselves. All that’s left for the rest of us is to continue rallying behind the team, so as not to lose sight of the progress that they’ve made since.