06 December 2012

Villaflor: The new normal

By Noel S. Villaflor
Thursday, December 6, 2012
THIS is it.
As it faces traditional powerhouse Singapore tomorrow night in their semifinal first leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup in Manila, the Philippine Azkals are on the cusp of rewriting Southeast Asian football history, again.
Azkals fans, of course, would never find that tiring, much more surprising. But several years ago, no Filipino football fan in his right mind would dare envision hosting a knockout match at home at this level.
And don’t blame the football fan if he starts looking beyond the semis and fancies a spot in the final. The idea just does not sound that ridiculous anymore.
And what about the Philippines lifting the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup? Three games are what
separates dream from reality.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is still tomorrow night’s difficult match to hurdle, and as Coach Michael Weiss prefers, it’s better to take things “one match at a time.” Besides, this is football, everything can happen and everything is still up for grabs.
There’s no denying, however, that the football landscape in this region has indeed changed, largely due to the Azkals, whose presence has unhinged the system and messed up the status quo.
So imagine how aggravated the traditional powerhouses of Asean football must be. One can sense it from the condescending remarks that match commentators working for foreign media outfits had let slip while covering the group stage matches.
That is understandable, of course, considering that for the pre-2010 editions of the Asean football championship, the Big Five – Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia – comfortably shared the spoils of the prestigious tournament among themselves.
Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore have championship trophies on their shelves, while Indonesia has four runner-up trophies to brag about.
Since the inaugural Asean Football Championship, then known as the Tiger Cup, in 1996 the only team coming close to spoiling the party was Myanmar, when it made the
semifinals in 2004. Things quickly got back to “normal” after that.
But unknown to many, the Philippines also made a bit of history in 2004: for the first time since the inaugural cup, the national team finally succeeded in not landing at the bottom of the group, thanks to the entry of newly born Timor-Leste, whom we beat to log our first win ever in the tournament. (We were cheering that feat, weren’t we, Mike Limpag?)
Of course, things also quickly got back to normal when the tournament resumed in 2007. The Philippines, now nicknamed the Azkals, reclaimed its special spot as bottom-feeder in the group stages.
Things got a bit worse in 2008 when the Philippines failed to qualify for the tournament proper.
In 2010, the Azkals turned the Suzuki Cup on its head and made it to the semifinals for the first time. The nation celebrated and embraced the sport as its own.
While Filipino football fans announced the renaissance of Philippine football, the pundits who represent the traditional powerhouses were critical of the Azkals’ success, with some calling the 2010 success a fluke.
Regardless of the result, tomorrow night’s semifinal clash between the Philippines and Singapore has debunked all that talk about a fluke.
And whether the traditional powerhouses like it or not, the Philippine Men’s National Team will remain a force to be reckoned with in the region in the years to come.
That is the new normal. Live with it.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on December 07, 2012.

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