Friday, February 24, 2012

Fair Play: Azkals' first Blue-Haired Fanatic returns home

(This is the draft of my Fair Play column for Sun.Star Cebu on Feb. 25)
DAVAO CITY—To say that last Sunday’s conversation I had with coach Graeme Mackinnon was unusual would be an understatement.

Here’s a guy I’ve known since 1997 telling me he’s quitting his job as head coach of Global FC because he’s lost the fire in him. The passion was gone and now all he wants is to go home to his family.

Boy was I surprised.  May have gotten a bit emotional, too.

I’ve known Graeme for quite some time now and I couldn’t forget the first time I met him because I was telling my former boss about how our football columnist got red-carded in one match and pop, on cue, this guy arrives at the office and I get introduced to the man who, right now, is in Brunei as the manager of the Philippines Under 21 team.

Time sure flies fast and 1997 sure feels like a lifetime ago considering the changes in the Philippine football landscape, and the changes, too, in our lives.

We met again in 2005 and I was no longer the angst-ridden, teenage football correspondent and he was no longer the coach who screams a lot at referees when calls that are a bit hard to understand are made.

It was the SEA Games in Bacolod and there were more space in the papers devoted to how basketball was missing than there was on the Philippines’ first international football tourney at home in 14 years.

And in that SEA Games, coach Graeme was the Blue-Haired Fanatic, donning that garb and wig of his that almost got him in trouble after one teacher told the cops that he should be arrested. Now that was funny.

But he wasn’t there as just an ordinary fan because coach Graeme is no ordinary fan.  He was there, too, to watch the progress of Arnie Pasinabo and Michael Casas, guys he coached in that game that got him red-carded and were starting for the U23 match.

In the final match against Malaysia, the Philippines walked to the pitch to the music of “Who let the dogs out!” thanks to Graeme’s connections. 

It was quite an experience.

After that, Graeme returned home to Australia and for years, I’d occasionally get an e-mail from him when the PFF screws up anew, or when Maria Sharapova exits the Australian Open early. (He was the first to raise the alarm ‘what is he thinking’ when the former PFF president said he would resign if he couldn’t make football the second-most popular sport in the country)

And that was that.

Things changed, of course, in December of 2010 and suddenly the nickname guys and gals like us threw around in an old forum back in 2005 was in the limelight.  Just reading the word “Azkal” or hearing it mentioned on national TV made me shake my head.

And when Dan Palami and some players first attended a sports talk show, I couldn’t help but notice the program using the logo that I uploaded—it was drawn by our copyeditor and rendered on photoshop by a fellow sportswriter.
We met again in 2011, for the home match against Mongolia and we joked that if only the guys and gals in the forum thought about copyrighting the ‘Azkal’ name in 2005, we’d be in comfortable hotels.

In that game, too, Graeme was no longer the only fan in facepaint and wigs, and he saw—like we all did—the birth of The Blue-Haired Fanatic.

I met Graeme again for the home game against Kuwait in July and it was hours before that match when I heard Dan say, “Graeme, would you coach my team?”

I broke the news later that October, when he finally took the job.

And the circle got completed too early when Graeme told me last Sunday, “I have resigned from Global.”

To be honest, about 10 minutes into that interview, while I was automatically jotting down what Graeme had to say, my mind was off in another direction.
“Does this mean I’m no longer going to see my old friend again?”

I hope not.

I surely hope not.

Thanks for the memories and lessons coach, and I hope you’re going to have all the “apo days” when you return home.

And yes, it’s been quite a crazy ride.  Still is.

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