Monday, April 21, 2014

Fair Play: Make that home game count

JUST like in the 2012 Suzuki Cup, Cebu will host the final home game of the Philippines before the senior team leave for its major tournament of the year, the AFC Challenge Cup.

This time, we are hosting Malaysia anew, a team we haven't beaten since we hosted them in the 1991 Southeast Asian Games, when Asean's sporting meet wasn't a U23 match.

You could say the Azkals rise started in 2004, when a retooled national team under Aries Caslib heavily recruited Filipinos abroad like Chris Greatwich, Chad Gould and teamed them up with then barely 20s guys like Aly Borromeo, Chieffy Caligdong, Michael Casas and other San Beda
standouts in the then Tiger Cup, but even then we performed poorly against Malaysia.

We lost, 4-1, to Malaysia, with Casas even stopping a penalty in 2004 and of course, who wouldn't forget that 4-0 loss to the Tigers in the 2008 AFC Championships finals stage? (now the Suzuki Cup.)  Aly Borromeo went down injured in the early minutes, never to return.  The Tigers scored on a
bicycle kick and that play was even featured in CNN World Sport's Play of the Day.

We also hosted Malaysia back in 2005, in another testy match though it's not counted as a senior game as it was in the SEA Games, which has since 2001 been a U23 competition.  We took the lead, 2-1, and for 15 minutes not a few folks were entertaining thoughts of finally making it to the semifinals
for the first time since 1991, the year we beat Malaysia.

Of course, Malaysia is Malaysia and the Tigers had other ideas.  And when they finally took the lead, the goalscorer went near the grandstand with a finger on his mouth, hushing the crowd.  I, along with a few fans, also had a finger up, but they were no where near our mouths and the one-finger salute wasn't surely meant to "hush."

Since 2004, we've played Malaysia five times, and lost only twice.  The last three matches have been draws, with no goals scored in the last two games, both held in Malaysia.  Wouldn't it be great if that impasse ends in homesoil?

That's why the fans presence is much needed in the April 27 game at the Cebu City Sports Center.  Let's give the team a proper sendoff and let's recreate the 2012 home atmosphere when the Philippines beat Singapore, 1-0, at home.

"Even if you close your eyes, you could still follow the game by listening to the crowd." That was one of the reactions to the crowd in that 2012 home game.  

I've been to home games in Bacolod and in Manila and color me biased, but nothing beats that Cebu crowd in 2012.  Can we repeat that? Or was that a one-time deal?  An epic reception for the first home game in Cebu?

We'll find out this Sunday.

The Challenge Cup next month is the most important tournament for the Philippines in modern times.  The team will be shooting for two birds in one stone--win the Challenge Cup and qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup.

And next month's tournament will be the Philippines' only chance to do that as the Asian Football Confederation have decided to drop the Challenge Cup--a tournament
for developing nations--in its calendar.

Yes, next month's Challenge Cup will be the last chance the country will be in contention for a major Asian trophy in our lifetime (unless the AFC decided to put up another tournament for developing nations.)  The AFC has decided to expand the Asian Cup pool to 24 teams from 16 teams, and developing nations need not go through the Challenge Cup to qualify.  The AFC teams will be divided into eight groups and the top two in each group will qualify for the AFC Cup, the remaining teams will be divided into six groups
and they will fight for the remaining eight slots.

So, let's give the Azkals a great send-off by cheering for them at home against Malaysia.  Let's make that home game count.

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