Manila, Philippines – No, the S-League is not the J-League; and yes, as the luck of the draw would have it, the Loyola Meralco Sparks of the UFL were paired with the team propping up the rest of the S-League table in the initial round of the 2012 Singapore Cup.
Yet, for all the hype surrounding an invitation being issued for a UFL club to participate, the Sparks’ encounter with Geylang United last Saturday had all the potential to become a banana skin for the Filipino club to slip on.
Yes, the invitation was probably issued in recognition of the progress in leaps and bounds that club football in this country has made over the last few years; and no small thanks to the visionaries who started the UFL.
Were the Sparks to perform badly, there was every chance that the organizers would quickly come to the conclusion that issuing the invitation was not too bright an idea, after all.
The onus, therefore, was always on the Sparks if not to win then just to give a good account of themselves. The Singapore Cup is not by any stretch of the imagination anywhere near the caliber of the Champions League; but it is the door that opens the rest of the continent to Filipino clubs.
It is well and good that there is now a regular fare of weekend and midweek league and cup fixtures in this country; on national television at that. There is no way to determine the depth of that football, however, by remaining insular.
Small wonder, then, that fans and players alike crossed the boundaries of club loyalties to rally behind the Sparks. That they were the club playing was incidental; it was the entirety of Philippine club football that was on audition.
At the end of a pulsating and totally captivating 120 minutes, the Sparks not only made history by defeating United, 2-1, but also probably ensured that the door to the continent will remain open.
In so doing, the Sparks also gave a profound insight into the strength of the UFL in comparison to the other more established leagues if not in the entire continent then at least in the Southeast Asian Region to which the Philippines belongs.
The wonder of it all was that the Sparks needed extra time to claim the famous win. United might have been the home side; but for most of the match were poor and lacked ambition.
It was not from lack of trying. The Sparks made United look pedestrian. Never mind United’s probably inflated possession statistics – particularly early on in the match – these were in parts of the field of little consequence to Ref Cuaresma in the Sparks’ goal.
Indeed, although Cuaresma’s feathers were ruffled by a freekick that rebounded from off a post by United’s Michael King, the Sparks could have well been cruising had Phil Younghusband not looked somewhat off-color.
With halftime beckoning, United took the lead largely against the run of play. A long ball was played from deep in midfield, and as we see ever so often in the UFL, the Sparks central defense switched off to deliver the howler of the day.
It is said that the most deflating goal to concede is the one just before halftime. There was, however, something of a smash-and-grab to the way United scored the opener that all the Sparks really needed to do was to play the same way to reap the rewards of their endeavor.
Easier said than done; and indeed, the Sparks were cramping all over the artificial turf in testimony to each individual player’s hard graft. Such is the character of the Sparks, though, that this was exactly what they did. If anything, the Sparks even increased the tempo after the break.
When their deserved equalizer came, it was sheer Goal-of-the-Season quality. James Younghusband, as he so often does whether in the blue of the national team or the orange of Loyola, delivered an inch-perfect cross in the 60th minute that Hartmann chested down and smashed into the net with an excellent volley.
The winning goal did not come until extra time. Loyola’s sustained pressure on the United goal resulted in the ball breaking off to Park Min-ho, whose shot deflected off a defender and into the net.
United tried to force penalties as the minutes ticked by; but although Mun Seung-man shot into the side netting just before the final whistle, it was always a case of too little too late for a team that did not seem to quite know what had hit them.
It was just this thing called Philippine football; and the Sparks were the rude introduction.
The Sparks not only avoided stepping on the banana skin that was the opening round tie but also opened the door for bigger things to come. By comprehensively defeating United, the Sparks answered questions about the depth of the UFL and also probably ensured that it will remain open for other clubs to come through into Asian continental football.
Yes, maybe one day soon, the Champions League, too!