For battle-scarred veterans Chieffy Caligdong, Roel Gener and Ian Araneta, their newfound fame and that of the Philippine Azkals is just a bonus.
To them, what’s important is that football is now a sport that Filipinos are starting to embrace. Everything that comes after is just icing on the cake.
“It’s always enough for us that we have made football popular in the country,” said the 28-year-old Caligdong, a veteran of the national team since 2004.
“Our satisfaction comes when kids come to us and say that they also want to play and be an Azkal in the future,” said Araneta, who joined the national team as a reed-thin 19-year-old in 2002.
‘We want to inspire’
“We just want to inspire the young generation to embrace the sport,” said Gener, an Armyman who, at 37, is the oldest member of the current squad.
The three players all came from the football haven of Barotac Nuevo, a 45-minute drive from Iloilo City. Kids learn the game early in Barotac. Drop a football and chances are kids will play passing games and show off their skills that breed individual panache.
Football is deeply rooted among residents of Barotac Nuevo so it came as no surprise when an overwhelming crowd showed up for an international match pitting the Philippines against Bhutan three years ago.
The Azkals got an even warmer reception when they returned to play an exhibition match in Barotac last June. Caligdong, Araneta and Gener made their homecoming memorable when they played in the same field where they honed their skills as kids.
The three have also played against each other over the years, but that hardly matters as their relationships go beyond the field. Once, in a tightly-contested final of a beach football tournament a few years ago, Gener accidentally hit Caligdong in the jaw.
The injury was serious and left Caligdong sidelined for several months. The adversity only strengthened their bond.
When Araneta went on a dry scoreless spell, Caligdong and Gener were among those who pushed him not to give up. Gener and Caligdong competed for starting spots during the Suzuki Cup main tournament but the competition was healthy and each player goaded the other to do well for the country.
When Caligdong scored the opening goal against Mongolia in the AFC Challenge Cup pre-qualifying stage in Bacolod, Gener was the first to congratulate him as he celebrated to the delight of the Azkals faithful.
“We are like brothers here,” said Araneta.
Residents still are not surprised when they see the trio playing on the local plaza field barefoot as they had done so when they were kids.
“We are proud we grew up in Barotac,” said Caligdong.
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