By Noel S. Villaflor
FILIPINOS love underdogs. That is why despite their failure to advance in the next round of the World Cup qualifiers, the Azkals have further endeared themselves to the masses.
Going down fighting against a highly rated, extremely difficult team to beat like Kuwait is more than just entertainment fodder – it is textbook inspirational stuff for a people who have just emerged from decades of collective low self-esteem.
Of course there are always the “haters” whose disgust for the Azkals defies explanation. They revel at the team’s every misstep and will never see anything positive about losing. To them, talk about learning experiences is for “losers.”
On the other hand, there are the Azkalnuts, first-degree cousins of the Pacnuts, whose fanaticism for the national team borders on idolatry. They flare up over criticism of any kind against their beloved Azkals. To them, there is no such thing as constructive criticism. They are that rabid. (Pacnuts, before I forget, is short for Pacquiao nuthuggers. Go figure.)
Yet there is not much difference between the haters and the Azkalnuts, although if you’d put two of them together in a tiny, confined space, it could get uglier than rotten food in a blender. These people are impervious to reason. Explaining something to them is like talking to a wild animal being cornered. Then again, why would someone talk to such an animal in the first place? But you get the picture.
Caught in the middle, of course, are the rational fans, who, to their misfortune, must endure silliness from both ends. To scribes like me, however, these fans make writing worthwhile. They are the ones who provide fresh insights and point out errors of fact and logic. They understand that sincere praise and constructive criticism have equal value.
These are the fans any football writer would want to share a beer with and tell them how bad he feels about the loss.
On my end, for instance, it would be enough consolation for me to share how I felt moments after Kuwait equalized, like how it swept away the rapture that swelled in my gut after Stephan Schrock scored that wonder goal. By the time the second goal was conceded, I could barely look at the widescreen TV at the office where the game was
By then, questions were flying in my head looking for answers, like those long balls in search of feet. How can the Azkals have allowed 10-man Kuwait to kill the match two times over? Was it a lack of maturity on our team to have conceded in such a manner?
Why was Coach Michael Weiss again so hesitant in using his subs when clearly many of the players were exhausted? Is there truth to observations that Weiss must have found the bench too shallow and so does not trust his subs at this level? If that’s the case, how can the Azkals management exhort their followers to “believe” when it doesn’t have enough faith in its second stringers?
Perhaps these were questions that could have been drowned with alcohol, but the last time I checked, drinking still wasn’t allowed during office hours.
Now, the reason I felt bad about the loss was not the Azkals’ crashing out of the World Cup qualifiers. The fan in me had braced myself for that eventuality, as I was certain that Kuwait’s three-goal lead going into the second leg was insurmountable.
On the other hand, I was confident the Azkals had a chance of beating Kuwait by a goal or, by a stretch, two. It might not be sufficient to carry the Filipinos to the next round, but still, a win over Kuwait would be a substantially bigger achievement than beating a much weaker Sri Lanka, regardless of “historical significance.”
Kuwait’s scalp would have been the underdogs’ biggest in decades, proof that indeed the Azkals are the real-deal giant slayers. It would have heralded another turning point for Philippine football. Still, I tell myself – and anybody who bothers to listen – that we’ll get there.
And while the haters would vehemently disagree, may I add that the performance of the Philippine Men’s National Football Team Thursday night is something every Filipino should be proud of. Just ask the Azkalnuts.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 30, 2011.