“I didn’t know this game was on my bucket list until it happened,” my friend Ron enthuses, as we were cheering on a group of ball boys and girls scooping excess water from the sides of the pitch at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Indeed, who would have thought that the Philippines-Cambodia match was one for the books? Hubris aside, an easy victory was expected, but the style and manner by which the Azkals had won the match was certainly beyond expectations.
When Turkmenistan routed Cambodia last Friday, the 7-0 scoreline seemed to be a tall order for the Philippines to overcome, as we start our bid to top Group E in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers.
The first twenty or so minutes of the match revealed a seeming lack of cohesion among our boys. However, when Phil Younghusband began the scoring festivities with a scrappy goal at the 25th minute, the proverbial floodgates opened up for the Azkals. Younghusband would score three more goals in the match, including one from a curling shot in the 30th minute of the match.
Javier Patiño, in his debut for the Philippine national team, netted a brace, scoring in the 45th and 57th minutes. The Filipino-Spaniard proved to be an effective attacking option behind Younghusband, showing he could take matters into his own feet (pun intended) in front of the goal.
Stephan Schröck, who was tearing up the left flank all game long, was an absolute delight to watch, especially as he made mincemeat out of the Cambodian defense. Schröck himself would score a goal at the start of the second half, taking the Cambodians by surprise and reducing goalkeeper Samreth Seiha to pounding the ground out of frustration. (Schröck was my man of the match—the man was also creating opportunities for his teammates all day long, to top it all off.)
Carli de Murga secured the Philippines’ current place on top of the Group E standings with a goal in the 88th minute, and in ninja-esque style.
In the post-match press conference, Stephan Schröck stated, “Everybody was happy. Coach gave us the right words.” Coach Hans Michael Weiss also congratulated the team for their achievement, pointing out the value that quality players bring with their individual skills.
Then there were the surprises apart from the goals.
A power outage occurred as the first half was about to end, leaving only a couple of floodlights to illuminate the pitch.
Even topping that was the temporary suspension of the match at the 65th minute, with the crowd waiting it out for an hour before the play could resume. The credit goes to the rag-tag team of boys and girls that had to manually scoop out the water puddles on the sides and at certain portions of the pitch, armed with nothing but brooms, pails, and empty trash bins.
Sometimes, the label of “emerging football nation” doesn’t get any more blatant with this kind of pitch. Coach Weiss lamented it “an absolute embarrassment to play in these conditions”. Schröck added that the pitch was not as good as he had expected.
In any case, Sunday night proved to have been the stuff of lopsided matches, puddle-riddled pitches, and highly uncertain weather. The only thing that is certain is that there is so much to look forward to on Tuesday evening, as the Philippines and Turkmenistan battle it out for the top spot of Group E of the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers.