Philippines’ Azkals seek football glory

The men’s national football team makes history Wednesday as they forge ahead into the country’s first attempt since 2002 to qualify for the most coveted honor in the world’s most popular sport, the FIFA World Cup.

“In trying to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, the Philippines was placed in a group which included Oman, Syria and Laos. In the double round robin group competition, the Philippines did not win a single game – losing 5 and drawing 1 (a 1-1 draw with Laos in the only game played in Manila),” recalled Bonnie Ladrido, chairman of the July 3 World Cup Qualifer match organizing committee, in his blog at ladrido.net

“To say that the campaign was an embarrassment is to understate things. In the 5 games that we lost, the scores were – 12-0, 5-1, 7-0, 2-0 and 2-0. Including the drawn game, the Philippines scored 2 goals,” Ladrido further recounted.

A long journey

Seeking Wednesday’s date with football glory has taken at least about a century to make. In 1913, the Philippines won the gold in the Far Eastern Games, precursor of the Asian Games. A year before that, in 1912, Paulino Alcantara of Iloilo started playing for Barcelona as a striker. Alcantara would go on to football immortality. By 1927, when he left the team, Alcantara had scored 357 goals for Barcelona.

Filipinos’ passion for football goes back centuries, counting from the last years of Spanish colonial rule (1875-1895) when, according to the account of www.fifa.com “football was the most popular sport in the country.”

Since the mid-1980s, the Philippines has been building momentum by training for and competing in regional football competitions. It is a strategy that paid off with the Azkals’ recent successes in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup.

Mirroring Filipino society

On Wednesday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, every move each team member will make will be for national pride and honor. The contingent’s composition somewhat mirrors the current face of Philippine society.

All the current Azkals are natural-born Filipinos. Some born, raised and lived in the homeland all their lives. The rest, sons of Filipinos who migrated to the United States and Europe. All answered the call to prove that the country has what it takes to rise in the highly-competitive world of football.

“Philippine football is alive and kicking but there is definitely more work that needs to be done,” Ladrido also said in his blog.

A significant chunk of that work will take place at the grassroots level, where local football champions of the next generation are coming from. One aspiring Azkal is Stephen Permanes from Butuan City in the northeastern Mindanao region of Caraga.

“I want football to be instilled in the Filipino culture. We Filipinos are very gifted in sports and I hope that the growing popularity of football will continue so we could develop more football superstars. I believe that the best way for this to happen is to do a grassroots approach to encourage more kids to play,” Permanes said in a Facebook interview with GMA News Online. — OMG, GMA News

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