By Cedelf P. Tupas
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines Azkals, a team that hardly merited a second look even from its Southeast Asian rivals a year ago, face the newly crowned Major League Soccer champion Los Angeles Galaxy in an exhibition match that underlines the rapid rise of the sport in this basketball-crazy nation.
Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. at the Rizal Memorial Stadium with the Azkals, who will wear their blue kits, finding themselves pitted against their idols led by the hugely popular David Beckham—a thought most of them hardly even imagined last year.
“Last year, we were at a hotel in Hanoi during the Suzuki Cup and this match was something we just couldn’t imagine happening,” said skipper Aly Borromeo. “It speaks a lot of the growth of football in the Philippines.”
The Azkals hope to rise to the challenge against the Galaxy as they gear up for tougher matches ahead, particularly in the AFC Challenge Cup in March.
“We will give them a good fight,” declared Chieffy Caligdong at the prematch press conference Thursday night. “We will show them that Filipinos can play football.”
Much as they will be overwhelmed playing against their idols, Azkals striker Phil Younghusband said they are taking the game seriously.
“We would want to be as professional as possible during the game,” said Younghusband. “We can be fans after the game.”
The Azkals can’t expect any favors from the Galaxy themselves as coach Bruce Arena has promised to field his strongest 11 for the match.
Beckham contractually obliged
The 36-year-old Beckham, a former captain of England who has won titles with Manchester United and Real Madrid, is contractually obliged to play at least 45 minutes in the match, said promoter Jinx Macabenta.
“We know we represent the MLS and the LA Galaxy and we promise it’s going to be competitive,” said Arena, who handled the United States national team for eight years until after the 2006 World Cup.
Arena remains concerned of the fatigue factor for the Galaxy, after getting just a 10-day rest following their conquest in the MLS Cup.
While the Galaxy are coming off a 1-0 victory over an Indonesian selection team Wednesday night in Jakarta, the Azkals have not played a game together since Oct. 11, when they beat Nepal, 4-0, in an international friendly at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
“We had a difficult game against Indonesia and it’s not going to be any different here,” Arena said.
Before they play the Azkals, the Galaxy will still visit Casa Herbalife, the charitable institution run by their sponsor Herbalife in Alabang.
Key players missing
The Azkals will be without some of the key players who have sustained the inroads they made over the past year in Stephan Schrock, Jerry Lucena, Dennis Cagara, Paul Mulders and goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, who are all tied up with their clubs in Europe.
Armyman Eduard Sacapaño will get the rare opportunity of facing the Galaxy on goal for the Azkals, who welcomed back Chris Greatwich in the lineup.
The 28-year-old Greatwich scored two goals in the historic run to the semifinals of the Suzuki Cup—the tournament that thrust the Azkals into stardom.
Manny Ott and Jason de Jong are also in the squad, although Azkals coach Michael Weiss has again expressed concern over the condition of his players who are coming from long trips from different parts of Europe.
Whatever the outcome, Borromeo believes the Azkals have already achieved something with the Galaxy coming over.
“These are the players we look up to,” said Borromeo. “Just to watch these guys (Galaxy) play is already a big moment for us.”