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Air Force Wins 2011 UFL Cup in Fairy Tale Final

Perhaps, it is stretching the imagination a bit to even contemplate a comparison between Wembley Stadium and the Rizal Memorial on a cup final day. That said, the latter was every bit as dressed up for the occasion yesterday as Wembley traditionally is for the annual English Football Association end-of-season affair.

I have said it before; in my day, whenever I played at the Rizal Memorial, we would call 50 spectators and some stray cats a large crowd. For today’s United Football League (UFL) cup final, I would say that the grandstand was roughly three-fourths full. Since when did that ever happen for a local club match?

Today’s crowd was knowledgeable, too; not curious folks who walked in to see what the big fuss was all about. They came in their club colours; and the day when people actually buy and wear replica jerseys of local clubs is, for somebody from the old school like me, as bizarre as Mork ending up in Mindy’s living room.

They also brought clappers and pompoms; there were large bass drums booming; and yes, there was chanting on the terraces while the match was going on. A year ago, I would have suggested that they had all come to the wrong arena. Don’t we see that sort of festive atmosphere only in UAAP and NCAA basketball games? Today, though, the people were all at the Rizal Memorial for the cup final.

There will always be winners as well as losers; but today, I daresay, was an exception. So, perhaps, the larger silverware went to the Philippine Air Force Phoenix after a breathtaking 2-nil victory over the Loyola Meralco Sparks. But even the result and the size of the silverware were irrelevant because, at the end of the match, the big winner was Philippine football.

European cup finals rather tend to be cagey affairs because the two protagonists usually take the conservative approach. There is nothing wrong with that; and it does make sense to be cagey after having gone so far in the competition. On the other hand, to the neutral, most of the time these cup finals are non-events and low-scoring bores.

Today’s UFL cup final was anything but. It was pulsating. It was end-to-end. It had drama. It had controversy.

It had subplots, most engaging of which was the coming to the fore of two faces of Philippine football. One face was the traditional: a team made up of current and past Philippine internationals, all homegrown talent and laced with a thick Ilonggo accent.

The other was the emerging, not even among the traditional UFL big guns but which invested heavily in the off-season and acquired the services of the iconic Younghusband brothers along with a handful of other Fil-foreigners.

That the first face won spoke a message loud and clear to aspiring young boys and girls around the country. The Holy Grail is reachable for anyone who is prepared to dedicate an entire lifetime to the beautiful game; and that Fil-foreigners are not merely icons to gawk at and ask autographs from.

On the other hand, that the Fil-foreigners are here to stay and what they bring to the local game was evident in how the game ebbed and flowed. The gods might have favoured the Air Force yesterday in terms of result; but the more expansive football flowed from the Sparks.

Indeed, were it not for a certain Edmundo Mercado Jr. – who had kept goal for the national team before the Etheridges of the world – and a frequently understated participant – the crossbar – who knows what the result might have been?

At times, Air Force was defending desperately and gymnastically, reminiscent of the way North Korea kept out Italy in the most notable of World Cup upsets in 1966. For the Sparks, who had submitted volleyball scores in the earlier rounds with clockwork regularity, it was a novel experience to not see the ball hit the back of the net.

Perhaps, it did. James Younghusband rose to meet Mark Hartmann’s corner in the second half for what would have been the equalizer to Ian Araneta’s first half opportunistic strike. Indeed, the Sparks already frolicked in celebration; but the fireworks that were set off ultimately turned out to be premature as the referee had the corner retaken for some infringement.

That mystifying decision was probably the only smudge on what was otherwise an excellent script; albeit, it thickened the subplot even more. Perhaps, the referee had every right to recall the corner on whatever technicality there was. It was still fussy; and one wonders how much richer in terms of twists the story might have been had the goal been allowed to stand.

In the end, Yanti Bersales settled whatever arguments might have been perpetuated by the disallowed goal by lobbing Ref Cuaresma in the Sparks goal in what must, certainly, be a goal of the year candidate. Bersales is something of a Jack Sparrow – he surely must have found that which Ponce de Leon failed to discover. In all honesty, he should be driving weapons carriers; but there he was scoring Beckham-esque goals and being named MVP.

When the final whistle blew, off went the fireworks again. Delirious players. Delirious crowd. Silverware. Confetti. Anyone could have been forgiven for thinking it was Istanbul and a UEFA Champions League final instead of the Rizal Memorial. There was a similarity, though, in that both Istanbul and the Rizal Memorial last night prove that fairy tales, indeed, do come true.

I have always thought that the media had as much to do with the erstwhile sorry state of Philippine football as well as its subsequent re-emergence. The game needed to be on television; albeit, it took the successes of the national team to build a fan base and ensure that there would be a viewership even for the local club scene.

After thinking all the while that it would just not happen in my lifetime, an excerpt from Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament now comes to mind: “There is a time for everything; and a season for every activity under the heavens...”

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