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Notes on a Night of Football at the Rizal Memorial

I do not recall ever having planned to go to the Rizal Memorial for an international football match when the most significant decision to make before leaving was whether to buy a raincoat or not. I did; and it seemed like a sensible decision to make after the previous Sunday’s extraordinary downpour which threatened to have the Cambodia game aborted.

Weather being contrary that it is, needless to say at the stadium it was hot and humid as Manila rather tends to get most summer evenings. The raincoat, thankfully, was the only regret of the day.

I would have preferred a seat up in the grandstand and, hopefully, a seat somewhere in the middle to be able to fully appreciate the ebb and flow of the game. The behind-the-goal seats that hardcore European fans prefer, that has simply never worked for me.

Because there were students on tight budgets in my small party, the bleachers were more or less forced by circumstance upon us.

Were it up to me, I told one of the boys in my party, since there were so many unoccupied seats not only in the bleachers but in the grandstand as well, I would have given away free tickets to NCAA and UAAP member school pep squads and asked them to forget their interscholastic rivalries for one night to support their country.
The way the bleacher tickets were priced was curious to say the least. The central bleachers were priced at PHP 500; but the seats at the corner of either end as well as behind the goal were priced at only PHP 100.

If, hypothetically, we could all afford to pay PHP 500 for the central seats but for some reason arrived to find the stadium filled up and only the edges of the central section still with seats available, then we would have found ourselves sitting right next to those who only paid PHP 100. In fact, only token railings separated the two sections.

As things were, those of us in the PHP 100 section rather tended to gravitate towards the corners. Apparently, locating behind the goals does not work for a lot of people as well.

What a pity that the Rizal Memorial could not be filled even by what was arguably the strongest national team that we have assembled in recent times. Not that it was surprising because the attendance during last December’s visit of Singapore for the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final first leg was not any better.

It was also Holy Week; and it is not far-fetched to assume that foremost in the minds of the more casual fans was either how to get home for the long weekend or a white-sanded beach somewhere.

The Azkals did not disappoint; although the purists would not have been impressed by the game’s lack of fluency and rhythm. It was not so much that we beat them but the manner with which we did so. It was far more comprehensive than the 1-nil scoreline suggested.

The shot statistics probably flattered Turkmenistan. In truth, however, but for a header that rebounded from off the crossbar, most of their shots were from range and did not really ruffle Roland Müller’s hairstyling.

I cannot recall any chance that Turkmenistan carved in open play that was threatening enough to make me swear into the sultry night. Chris Greatwich and Jerry Lucena worked incredibly hard to keep the visitors out; and hard graft is something that I always appreciate.

In contrast, the Azkals were getting behind Turkmenistan’s defence time and again; in fact, practically from kick-off.

With the teams that I used to coach, we would always laughingly admonish somebody on a hot goalscoring streak to leave some for the next match. That the game remained goalless for as long as it did, I rather feared, was because Phil Younghusband had left nothing for Turkmenistan.

Of course, that turned out to be a silly thought as Phil himself would eventually score the winner. From where we sat, we could not really see what went on and just celebrated as everyone did when the net bulged as the ball hit. Raising our fists seemed almost reflex.

At that moment, everyone in my small party could have used instant replay. I asked the guys how the goal was scored just to make sure that I saw things right; and not surprisingly, everyone gave a different version. In fact, we only really saw how Phil scored the goal while watching the replay on television two days later.

There is always a trade-off! Nothing compares to watching a football game at the stadium because of the crowd dynamics. You feel the energy because you are part of that energy, especially when there is goalmouth action.

On the other hand, far as we were from the pitch, we could not always be sure who was on the ball and could have benefited from commentating. Especially when some of the Chinese referee’s decisions looked contentious, instant replay would have been godsent.

Speaking of the Chinese referee, while he got the two yellows on Phil right, there were many calls and non-calls that should have made the crowd remind him that he was in Manila. The problem, in my humble opinion, was that the hissing and booing from the bleachers was never a concerted and sustained effort.

We have a long way to go before we can turn the homecourt into a definite advantage. The cheering, as with the boos and hisses, was stop-start and never sustained to create a proper football atmosphere. It was still, in many ways, a basketball crowd in a football stadium.

In a basketball game, things happen quickly from one end to another and the crowd reacts to this action. In a football game, things are far different and knowledgeable crowds find things to do when action is slow – like singing and chanting.

To be fair, in the bleachers there were two groups who tried to get the crowd animated. One was an all-male group which announced itself with much fanfare and then proceeded to stand behind the goalmouth away from where most of the bleacher crowd sat.

The members of the group obviously knew their football. The problem was that nobody else seemed to know the words of the songs and chants that they tirelessly belted.

Although I sincerely believe that there was no intention to do so, but essentially this group was also competing with the larger group at the far end of the bleachers for the crowd’s attention. The other group had a megaphone and their chants were simpler.

Thus, even if the other group was farther from where we were, the people in our section rather tended to go along with them rather than this smaller group that was closer to where we sat. Their chants were also simpler.

There were also individuals who would intermittently chant something which I was sure they hoped the others in the crowd would pick up. But it always was, like, yeah-yeah whatever...

We Filipinos are a self-conscious lot; and this was so evident at the stadium. While I felt that some of the chants were good enough to get the crowd going, most of the time people just sort of tried to feel out what the guy next to him would do before joining the chanting. Because the next guy was also probably trying to feel the guy next to him as well, things seldom got started.

When it did, it was the more or less universal “Let’s go Azkals!” which was not only simple and catchy but also something that in most likelihood originated from a basketball arena somwhere.

Were it up to me, I told one of the boys in my party, since there were so many unoccupied seats not only in the bleachers but in the grandstand as well, I would have given away free tickets to NCAA and UAAP member school pep squads and asked them to forget their interscholastic rivalries for one night to support their country.

Oh well...

At the end of the day, what really mattered was how comfortable our team really was in defeating Turkmenistan. A quick scan of the other countries which also qualified for next year’s main Challenge Cup tournament makes one think that the most difficult hurdle to overcome will be not any of these countries but how to ensure that all who played in the Manila qualifying group will also be available to play in the Maldives.

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