The reaction to the recent burst of wins of our national football team, Azkals, has been electric, if a few notches below the zealousness with which the rest of the world worship their own teams. While our team is nowhere near breathing distance of the coveted FIFA World Cup trophy, it was a thought one couldn’t help fantasizing about. After all, the team is now being lionized precisely because of one thing: they surpassed expectations.
Azkals veterans Yanti Bersales and Emelio “Chieffy” Caligdong, newbie Yannick Tuason, and British-born brothers Philip James and James Joseph Younghusband share their thoughts on what it takes to be in the national team and what it means to play football, not only for themselves, but also for the whole country.
The bad old days
It was in 2005, recalls left-winger Chieffy, that the team played in the South East Asian Games, with an early lineup that included himself, the Younghusband brothers, Anton Del Rosario, and present team captain Alexander Borromeo, among others. With a constantly changing line-up, the team had been established for more than a decade; but, recalls 29-year-old Chieffy, “Nung time na yun, hindi pa gaano kasikat yung team. So, hindi pa nabigyan talaga ng time ng government yung football.”
Then still nameless, the team trained in Ultra, bereft of training kits, shoes, uniforms. They weren’t eating regularly and often resorted to cheap canned goods. Their condition was so dire, they ate only when their manager thought to cater. “Pagkatapos nu’n naubos na, wala na.” But, coming from a military background, Chieffy, who also plays for the Philippine Air Force, believed it was up to the players to fend for themselves in order to survive.
It was at about the same time that the handful of their fans sought to find a name for the team, just to bolster support. Discussing in a defunct online forum, the fans agreed that the team should be called “askals,” a syllabic abbreviation of the phrase “asong kalye,” literally translated as street dog. Being named after a free-ranging urban canine seemed befitting at the time, as the team was chasing opportunities in a derisory condition, like a stray dog scraping in the dirt for a piece of bone.
So, with a single-letter permutation, the name “Azkals” stuck. But merely acquiring a new moniker wasn’t much, at least not when it came to winning football matches. As bad as not winning was playing their hearts out to near-empty stands. Yanti, a veteran striker (a position tasked with scoring goals) who was also with the Air Force, recalls, “Halos lahat ng nakaupo sa bench, yung mga crowd na nandoon, halos puro pamilya lang ng football players.”
It was a tough going as the team faced a chicken-and-egg situation. Because assistance was nil, their athletic condition remained subpar, making it even more difficult to garner support. The government had other fish to fry, companies were unwilling to invest, and the general public felt no attachment to the sport.
James, 24, who plays a midfielder, a position that assists both in the team’s offense and defense, also muttered darkly about “a lot of politics involved.” Even with the entry of “foreigners,” spearheaded by the English-Filipino Younghusband brothers, Azkals remained the region’s underdog.
One would think that a team with little incentive to play couldn’t go any lower. But it did. In 2006, the team skidded to 195th in the FIFA World Rankings.
A game of two halves
But, like in any football match, a drastic and unexpected change can happen anytime. Things turned in early 2010 when the stray dogs found a new manager, Leyte Football Association president and Autre Porte Global, Inc. CEO Dan Stephen Palami, known for being hands-on.
“Nung hinawakan kami ni Mr. Dan Palami nung 2010, nakikita na talaga na may direction yung Philippine football. Kasi unang-una, yung mga gusto ng players naibibigay,” says Chieffy. The members suddenly saw themselves shod in new spike shoes, provided training kits, and even given allowances. “Kami ring mga players, parang pinakita din namin sa kanya na in return, magugustuhan niya yung team.”
The buzz that the Philippines actually had a football team and that it was a serious contender began when the team started winning matches in the 2010 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup. The buzz grew into a small roar when Azkals went on to defeat defending champion Vietnam, pushing their way into the semi-final series. And this year, after qualifying for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup, the new and enhanced Azkals proved to all that their earlier wins were no fluke.
Philip James, 23, one of the team’s veteran strikers, still reels from their spectacular turnabout. “Everything’s happened so fast in a short span of time and, I mean, who would’ve thought that last year, this would’ve happened,” Phil marvels. “Sometimes, I just can’t believe it.”
Yanti, who at 38 has been good-naturedly nicknamed “lolo”, agrees. “Exciting ngayon, kasi lalong tumataas ang level natin sa football. Maganda, parang gusto mong bumalik [sa] pagkabata. Kung pwede lang, eh,” he muses.