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Diary of a Failed Uzbek World Cup Qualifying Conquest

First, the Concerns

To say that I was excited about making the intergalactic trip from Batangas to Bulacan to watch the Philippine Azkals play against Uzbekistan is a massive understatement. That this is at all remarkable is because at my age and after a lifetime in football, I can often be extremely blasé in my attitude towards the game.

But this was different: less than a decade ago, I never would have imagined planning for such a trip was at all possible in my lifetime. I did not think that I would ever watch a Philippine national football team play anywhere other than in the rickety old Rizal Memorial; or that there would ever be in this country a glorious new stadium fit to be labelled world class

Most of all, I never would have imagined that the I would ever be watching my national team play not only in a World Cup qualifier against one of Asia’s top football nations, but also from a position of strength with a realistic chance of progressing through to the next round of qualifying matches.

I did have some concerns prior to the match; and superstitious that I can be where my football is concerned, I dared not write about these prior to the match lest I jinxed our team’s chances in any way.

I never would have imagined possible watching a match in a stadium as gorgeous as this.

First, it concerned me that the match was to be played at a time when our locally-based players had every right to start looking forward to the off-season; and that the Uzbeks would be fresher because they were still midway through their own season.

It is one thing to win two qualifying matches at a time when expectations, if at all, were likely only from the hopelessly romantic; and another thing to play when those two wins have created the expectations that were not there before. I am a boyhood Liverpool fan. I know all about how expectations can weigh down a team.

I was also concerned that Stephan Schröck played the entirety of the friendly against the Maldives; and half-suspected that he would start the Uzbekistan game warming his tushie. That Misagh Bahadoran had grabbed the opportunity offered by Schröck’s injury against Bahrain with two hands had created a happy problem.

However, I personally would have thought that the happy problem was how to accommodate the two on the pitch rather than to have to choose between them.

A quick question to all readers: what has been the common denominator in our recent swashbuckling performances – Indonesia in the Suzuki Cup, Bahrain and Yemen in the World Cup qualifiers? Conversely, what has been the common denominator in our recent suck matches – Vietnam and Thailand in the Suzuki Cup?

My personal answer to the first question is that Manny Ott was in outstanding form; and my personal answer to the converse question is that Manny Ott suffered a dip in form.

Do not anybody get me wrong. I have been a big Manny Ott fan since the 2012 qualifiers. I am a big admirer of his simple, thinking and hard-working style of playing. However, as I understood it he was suspended from the UFL Cup final and was also not given a run out in the Maldives friendly.

Thus, my final concern was which Manny Ott would show up for the Uzbekistan game.

The Uzbeks were loudly booed for time wasting and feigned injuries.

We Did Not Play Badly

Far from it; and the 1-5 final result against the rampaging Uzbeks did not tell the entire story. What our team was guilty of was defending badly, if at all how we played at the back could be called defending.

We laid out the welcome mat to the visitors and could have spared ourselves the trouble by laying out banana leaves over a long table and treated the Uzbeks to a traditional boodle fight instead.

From where we stood after the final whistle, it looked as though a teammate was consoling Daisuke Sato. He had every reason to feel distraught as the opening two goals not only came from his side but were also almost carbon copies of each other.

However, these goals were as much Sato’s – and Stephan Palla’s – failure to play tight on the wide player and prevent him from cutting inside as the inside midfielder’s failure to slide out to close the shooting lane. It was all really basic defending; or the failure to do so.

Neil Etheridge would also not be too happy with his part in either goal. He was slow to get down for the first; albeit the greasy surface would have played its part. While there was power in the second goal, I would have thought that it would nonetheless be a routine tip over or punch for a goalkeeper of Etheridge’s stature and experience.

That we were chasing the game after less than a minute was probably because we started the match with our tail between our legs. We were probably playing the reputation, not the eleven players on the pitch.

The Azkals did not really play badly.  They just defended badly.

We often sat back with a line of five defenders, did not chase and harry as well as we did against Bahrain and Yemen and often could not offer support to the frontrunners because most of our players were stranded too deep.

I also rather suspected that the wrong Manny Ott showed up; albeit in fairness, I would have given him 15 minutes against the Maldives if just to get rid of the moulds that accumulated from the enforced lay-off from competitive play.

I still say that, over all, we played well at least on the offensive side, and particularly so in the second half when Schröck was introduced. When one considers that at least four of the Uzbek goals were totally preventable; and that we had enough chances to have scored more than the one Schröck score from a free-kick, this really could have been a comfortable home victory.

Everybody is Entitled a Bad Game

In a way, it was probably for the best that we lost this game with the knowledge that there are five more to play. Although the score line looked emphatic, the fact that we could in the second half stitch together intricate passing plays that had the Uzbeks back-pedalling nervously showed all of us that our team can play at this level.

Now the defensive part, let us all leave this for Thomas Dooley to worry about.

The truth is, everybody is entitled to a bad game. The Uzbeks already had theirs in Pyongyang; Bahrain theirs at the Philippine Stadium in June; and let us all hope that DPR Korea will also drop a point or two here and there.

Everybody is entitled a bad day.  Hopefully, last night was the Azkals' and that there will be no more.

Some in the stadium might have noticed Schröck waving his teammates to slow the game down at a time when those of us in the bleachers were bellowing at our team to keep pushing for more goals. Arguably, he was right.

We all need to be patient and understand that every game is but a component of an entire campaign. Last night’s match was lost as early as the first half; but there are five more matches to set things right. Even Asian giants like Japan, Korea Republic and Iran do have their bad days at the office; and who were we before this qualifying tournament started?

Whatever happens in the next few months, we already know that we have left our comfort zone that is Southeast Asian football and can compete with the continent’s traditional big guns.

Just a word to the Uzbeks: do not get too cocky! Despite the emphatic score line, I saw enough last night to know that we can get you in Tashkent!

For God, For Country and for the Azkals

We Filipinos are generally not the national anthem singing type. You all know what I mean. There are many who do not even bother get up when the malls play the anthem to start the business day; and when an emcee in some function says let us all sing the national anthem, it is often, like, look to your left and look to your right and if neither is bothering you do not bother as well.

However, I do not think that I had ever heard the Lupang Hinirang sung as loudly and as passionately by a group of people as it was last night up in the bleachers at the Philippine Stadium. I had goose bumps all over my body! That seven thousand-strong crowd last night came for war!

Of course, when the Uzbeks scored in less than a minute, it was, like, what in hell was that?

Tired from the long day supporting the Azkals.  But happy...

But this was a knowledgeable and passionate football crowd; not bad at all for a basketball crazy country. The pep squad was a nice touch during the Bahrain match; and I would have wanted to see bass drums at one end of the stadium.

Their absence could not dampen the crowd, anyway; and chants of PI-LI-PI-NAS and Let’s go Azkals would reverberate around the stadium every now and again. Yes, even when the score was already 1-5.

There was loud booing whenever an Uzbek feigned injury or wasted time or when the referee made a controversial decision. There was also humour as when somebody shouted “Tama na! Tama na!” when the score was already 5-1 and the Uzbeks were still trying to score. People were cursing in diverse dialects.

It was fun!

I came with a party of fifteen, all members of my football club. We left Lipa at one in the afternoon and did not get back home until three the next morning. Travel time could have been much shorter but for the asteroid belt called EDSA, and whatever was said in the evening news about traffic flow having improved is all hog wash.

But we were all happy to have been part of that passionate and patriotic crowd at the Philippine Stadium last night. A bit hoarse, perhaps, from all the shouting; tired from the 14-hour excursion; wet from the tropical downpour before the game; but happy because it was all for God, for country and for the beloved Azkals.