Monthly Archives: December 2010

Scary Jakarta expedition for an Azkal fan

Miguel Larrauri is a football devotee. He’s more than a follower—he’s a zealot, fanatic, activist. He worships the football on an altar. Last December 15, Miguel flew to Jakarta. He watched the PHL Azkals play the Indonesian team in Game One of the AFF Suzuki Finals. From Cebu, he was, quite possibly, the only person to witness the game first-hand.

“I have experienced many football games in my life including a championship between bitter rivals Real Madrid and Barca in the Camp Nou,” said Miguel, “but it could not compare to the atmosphere inside the Stadium Utama Gelora Bung Karno.”

When I asked Miguel how much he adores the game of Pele and Maradona, his email reply summed it all: “I LOVE FOOTBALL!!!! I have loved it ever since I first played football. You see, I come from a family of football players. I don’t mean just my immediate family members, but even my cousins and close family friends. We would play in the beach or any park we could play in.”

The excursion to Jakarta? “I got myself to Indonesia to watch our boys play because I really felt they could beat them. I wanted to watch the eliminations in Vietnam but could not go due to work. My brother and I helped arrange the team meeting with President Noynoy Aquino on Monday, Dec. 13, in Malacañang Palace.

“Then, we had dinner with the team that evening in The Fort. I stayed with the team in the Sultan Hotel in Jakarta and watched them train. I could only watch the first game but that was good enough for me. The team was very positive and truly believed they could beat the Indonesians. Sadly, the Indonesian team had twelve players on the field versus our 11. By that, I mean the crowd in that stadium. They truly love their team and they will boo you to death.

“I came out of the dugout with the Philippine flag over my shoulders before the game and the crowd booed me as if I was giving them the finger. I literally had to wear a jacket to cover my Philippine jersey to get to my seat or else the crowd might just throw something at you. Luckily I was staying in the VIP section and the president of Indonesia was five rows behind me. Getting out of the stadium was another story. If we won, it would have been very dangerous but ‘El Loco’ Gonzales made sure it did not end that way.”

In our talk yesterday while he was vacationing in Boracay, Miguel described the Jakarta experience as frightening. The trip from the hotel to the football stadium, he said, was only a five-minute walk. But the players took the bus, complete with police escort, and it took them 30 minutes.

“All the streets, all around, everywhere,” Miguel said, “it was filled with Indonesians. And, believe me, I never saw ‘the finger’ so much in my life! These Indonesians fans were rowdy. It was scary.”

That Game One morning, the Azkals assistant coach Aris visited the stadium. “He made a mistake by wearing the Philippine jersey,” said Miguel. “He was chased by about 10 to 15 Indonesians straight to the hotel!”

Miguel, who played football varsity for Ateneo de Manila University for 12 years (“from Grade 4 until I graduated in college,” he said), wanted to celebrate his team by painting the PHL flag on his cheeks. Absolutely not! he was warned.

Even the Filipinos in Jakarta, knowing the craze and fanaticism of football in Indonesia, were cautious with their cheering for the Azkals. “After that first game, as expected, our players were kinda down. Etheridge felt guilty; there was a miscommunication between him and the defense that resulted in Gonzales’ goal. It was so loud inside the stadium,” said Miguel. “After the game, I arranged for a team dinner with the expat community. We ate at a German restaurant called Die Stube. There was a big community of Filipinos there. But, here’s the funny part. Many of the Filipinos did not watch the game live. They were scared. Many were told not to go. Instead, they gathered in a coffee shop to watch. Everybody was praning.”

FULL INTERVIEW WITH MIGUEL:

“I love football!!!! I have loved it ever since I first played football. You see, I come from a family of football players. I don’t mean just my immediate family members, but even my cousins and close family friends. We would play in the beach or any park we could play in. luckily I went to school in ATENEO DE MANILA and we had BROTHER OZCARIS there. He formed Lightning Football and this is what made ATENEO produce a lot of good players. It was called lightning football cause it was fast and short football. It was played during lunch time in the Ateneo grade school field. We only had 15 minutes to play. It was classroom vs. classroom and I was the top scorer almost every year. Brother Ozcaris noticed me right away and asked me to join the RIFA MIDGETS C TEAM when I was grade 4. Well, from that year until the year I graduated from college, I played every year in the varsity team of ATENEO. That was for 12 great years!

“When I went to high school, my mentor became Cris Monfort and this guy believed in me. He took time off to train me just by himself and this really boosted my self confidence. On my second year in high school, he accelerated me from Aspirant B (taking me away from my batch mates who I had been playing with since grade school) to the Candidates team which was usually all seniors. To make things even more difficult for me, he made me first eleven and put me as the winger or right forward position. I was not really a skilled dribbler or had fancy footwork. What I had was pure speed and a killer’s instinct to score a goal.  During the COKE GO FOR GOAL tournament in Barotac, I played for the NCR team and I scored my 2 most memorable goals of my life in one game there. Playing in Barotac is one hell of an experience for a young boy. First of all, unlike in manila where maybe 20 people will watch a game, in Barotac 2000 people will watch a game and even the lolas will know what an offside trap is. Over there, if you were good, the kids will ask for your autograph, just in case you get famous in the future.

“In college, my mentor was not only Cris Monfort, but also Bert Honasan. I played for the Ateneo UAAP team for 4 great years. I never won a UAAP medal for football but I actually won 2 UAAP medals for track and field, both in the 4×100 meter relay. GO FIGURE.  After college, I joined first division and kept playing competitively till I got married. I even formed a couple of first division teams like LE COQ SPORTIF, MEGAWORLD, EMPIRE EAST, and ICTSI. I played one year in the Philippine Youth team and 2 years in the men’s team. My football days kinda ended when I broke my back and my L4 vertebrae started to subloxate or move interiorly. But my passion for football never ended.

“I always supported the Philippine team and actually would hire some of them to play in the first division teams I formed. During the 2006 SEAG games, I went to Bacolod to support the azkals. During that tournament, we already had the so called FIL-AMS (I don’t understand why they were referred to as that when they were mostly from England) like the Younghusband brothers. Aly Borromeo was already in the team then and he was actually my teammate a few years earlier when he joined our team during the MINI WORLD CUP in Nomads.”

HOW WILL THE AZKALS’ SUCCESS IMPACT PHIL. FOOTBALL?

“The result was huge, huge. I’ve never seen this kind of attention on Phil. football. The games were shown on TV. During the Suzuki Cup, the bars and restaurants were full—everyone was watching. It was like a Manny Pacquiao fight. In fact, the ratings during those games were higher than the PBA games. Plus, the Mizuno shirts were all sold out. This is nice to see. What’s important is this: we should not let go of the momentum.”

11 points on the ’11 Cebu City Marathon

Next Sunday, it’s one of Cebu’s most-awaited of events. If Al Mendoza calls the Azkals the “Achievers of the Year,” then Running is the “Sport of the Year.” For no other endeavor has convinced more Cebuanos to move and exercise and sway those arms and legs than this sport.

The Cebu City Marathon happens in 12 days. This January 9, 2011 event is the only 42-km. race in this island. Here are 11 items to remember…

1.) The Tunnel. For the first time, runners joining the 42K and 21K will trot below sea level. Almost a kilometer in length, running the tunnel was the same experience we had in Hong Kong. During that HK Marathon, runners jogged beneath the waters. It was a unique, cherished moment. Cebuanos will experience the same next Sunday.

2.) Fort San Pedro. Another feature in 2011 is running inside Plaza Independencia. Imagine gazing at the beauty of the Malacañang sa Sugbo and Fort San Pedro? This is new. Prepare your eyes.

3.) Sights and Sounds of Cebu. Held during the Sinulog week, this is what distinguishes the CCM from other marathons: the timing. For, with the Sinulog, there’s no bigger festival in our 7,107 islands. And what better time for tourists to visit? Plus, if you’re a runner… perfect. You see — literally, on foot — the sights of Cebu; you hear the sounds of the Sinulog drumbeats.

4.) Tommy O and Mike R. Last January during the “01-10-10,” then-Mayor Tommy Osmeña attended the twin Cebu City Marathon events. During the carbo-loading party, Mayor Tom spoke. He welcomed the visitors. Same during race morning: TRO shook hands, awarded medals, greeted the Kenyans. This year, Mayor Michael Lopez Rama — a runner — will join the 5K alongside 6,000 of his constituents.

5.) Cebu City. The role of government is crucial. Apart from giving the prize money amounting to P389,500 (with P60,000 going to the 42K men’s and women’s winners), it’s the support that’s essential. Every major marathon on earth has the backing of their city. Boston. Berlin. London. New York. Chicago. All these world’s best bring tens of thousands of tourist-runners – sports tourism, it’s called — because of the assistance of their mayor and city officials. Thanks to the City Government of Cebu, we have one of the most celebrated of races in the Philippines.

6.) CITOM and Jack Jakosalem. The roads will be closed from 4 to 9:30 on the morning on Jan. 9. If you run inside the SRP, the South Road Properties will be closed. Same with, of course, the tunnel (absolutely no fumes!). Osmeña Blvd. will be half-closed–one side of our island’s most important thoroughfare will be off-limits to vehicles.

7.) CERC. Called the Cebu Executive Runners Club, this is the group of nearly 50 doctors, lawyers, businessmen and executives. Each year, CERC focuses on organizing only one race: the CCM. This is a non-money-making event that consumes our time, effort and resources. What for? CERC does this because we love running and we want to share our incredible marathon experiences with our fellow Cebuanos. You need not fly to Hong Kong or Singapore. Run in your very own Cebu. (Notice: Get ready to be leg-massaged by some of Cebu’s top doctors!)

8.) Numbers. There will be more than 1,100 runners joining the 42K race. With the 21K, nearly 1,500. With the 5K, 3,000-plus.

9.) Carbo-loading Party. You must attend this! Scheduled on Jan. 7, it’s an evening of relaxation, pasta-eating, and mingling with fellow marathoners. You’ll hear inspiring stories, watch marathon films, chat with others who offer tips.

10.) Race Expo. This is from Jan. 5 to 7. It is during this time that you can get your race packs: your New Balance shirts, race bibs, route maps, etc. Discounts will also be offered by Ayala Center tenants.

11.) Most painful/fulfilling moment. That’s what the 42K is about. It’s several hours of huffing, puffing, walking, running, drinking 100Plus, cramping, frowning, smiling–a range of experiences that you’ll never experience anywhere else but the marathon. These few hours will remain with you forever.

Pacman in Cebu?

CITOM chief (and former Cebu City Councilor) Jack Jakosalem with Manny and Gerry Peñalosa

Dong Secuya is the founder of Philboxing.com, one of the sport’s top websites in the world. Last Sunday, Dong wrote a piece that had my eyes enlarged: for Manny Pacquiao’s encounter on May 7, 2011 with Sugar Shane Mosley, he wants to prepare… here.

“Pacquiao, who normally trains eight full weeks for his fights, has been quoted as saying that he wanted the first half of his next training to be held in Cebu but Roach was reluctant to the idea,” wrote Dong Secuya.

“‘Baguio is better, Manila is worst but Cebu has a lot of distractions also,’ Roach said who was to the point of walking out when Pacquiao trained in Cebu during the second Pacquiao-Barrera fight in October, 2007.

“‘I’ll take care and control everything,’ Pacquiao adviser and close friend Wakee Salud, who owns the gym where Pacquiao would be training in Cebu, told Roach over a cup of coffee. ‘Oh yeah? I’ll talk to Manny about it,’ Roach answered back.”

Imagine MP in Cebu? This is outstanding for you and me, Cebuanos. But, as Freddie is rarely wrong, he’s once more correct on this one: Cebu offers plenty of distractions. Think Waterfront Casino on late nights. Think Cebu Coliseum basketball on Sundays. Think of the easy, 60-minute plane ride to either GenSan or Manila. Coach Roach knows best: No better cage to confine the wild Manny than the Wild Card Gym.

Jingo Quijano and John P. with Goody Peñalosa and Jinkee Pacquiao

Indonesia wins; the Philippines doesn’t lose

Jourdan Polotan lived in Indonesia from 1993 to 2001. What did he see? He witnessed a nation – much like our devotion to Manny Pacquiao or basketball – that was fanatical about one sport.

“Football in Indonesia is very big,” Jourdan said. “Whenever my wife Jingle and I drove through the Kampungs (towns), there are two things you will always notice aside from the lush greenery – a high-walled covered structure (badminton court) and football fields. The Persetakan Sepak Bolah Seluruh Indonesia (literally, All Indonesia Football Association) has five levels in their national league. We lived in Surabaya, East Java, home of the Persebayas. Whenever there was a match in the city, we’d pay close attention on the radio. If the home team lost, their fans, known as the Boneks, had a tendency to act like the football hooligans in Europe. They’d ‘riot.’ But, good thing, the police were in control. All it meant was traffic jams – they would run around the streets, bang on car roofs, blow whistles and air horns.”

That’s why Indonesia beat the Azkals. They are rabid devotees; we’ve been stray dogs. The semi-final loss? It was sad for two reasons. One, had we beaten the hapless Myanmar in our final elimination game, we’d have faced Malaysia and, I believe, beaten them. We’d be in The Finals. Two, the home court “disadvantage” of not playing in Bacolod or Manila. That was painful; a Pinoy sure-boost that turned into 88,000 Indonesian boos.

Still, it is senseless to complain. In fact, it is outrageous to say we’re “losers.” In spirit, we won. Our twin 0-1 defeats in Jakarta were moments of pride. Those weren’t debacles. The returning PHL team is now a band of superstars.

Who’d have expected — just two weeks ago — that millions of Filipinos would watch the AFF Suzuki Cup on Star Sports? That, during a dinner party, Oscar Tuason and I would talk about the Azkals? That we’d all recognize Younghusband and Etheridge and Greatwich as Pinoys? That we’d be Facebook fans (30,000+ and counting) of the PHL squad? The past 16 days since we defeated the defending Suzuki Cup champions, Vietnam, have been like a Diego Maradona-like spiral on the green grass.

Where to, now? This is the question. This momentum has to be seized and sustained. My suggestion? These football heroes should tour our 7,107 islands, distribute Mizuno balls, organize free clinics on basketball courts and barangay lots, sign autographs at SM City malls, conduct Y101 and Bombo Radyo interviews, be featured on ANC and Sports Unlimited. This unexpected success story must not be wasted. The sport of kicking is now kicking and alive.

Money vs. Manny

Kung Binisaya-pa, si Manny Pacquiao ni lapas na ug kalendaryo. He’s now 32. Last Friday at Gen. Santos City, Manny celebrated his birthday beside Bob Arum and the barong tagalog-wearing Freddie Roach. The Congressman serenaded the crowd with his MP Band then raffled off P1,000,000 in cash and a brand-new Toyota Vios. Wow. How we wished we were there to see Santa.

In contrast, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. was in prison. It was his second arrest in three months. This time, he reportedly poked a security guard in the cheek after an argument over parking tickets. (Didn’t he earn $20 million against Mosley?) He now faces a barrage of court cases ranging from misdemeanor battery and assault to coercion, grand larceny and robbery. While Rep. Manny will become a Philippine senator or Vice-President, Floyd can end up in jail for the next 34 years. Thanks to his cowardly avoidance of our Pinoy boxing azkal, may his zero-loss record rot in prison with him.

Graeme Mackinnon on tonight’s PHL vs IND Part 2

Australian-born with blue Aussie blood running in his veins, he is Filipino by heart. Graeme Mackinnon, who coached football in Cebu for 14 years before jumping back to Kangaroo Country, was my former co-columnist at The Freeman. Both an expert at soccer and writing, I yield this space to Graeme…

“FIRE THE BARK UP, AZKAL FANS! Tonight, the AZKALS will attempt to go where Philippine football has never gone before. A 1 nil loss against Indonesia means that the AZKALS need to win to make the final of the Suzuki Cup. They don’t need to win during regulation time they just need to be tied. After extension if it’s still a tie then a penalty shoot-out will determine the winner. I thought the boys played well. After conceding the only goal of the game in the 34th minute they made sure not concede any late goals.

“Most sports are a game of inches. Neil Etheridge has been a revelation between the sticks. He has been the rock foundation on which the AZKALS confidence and belief have grown. The game against Indonesia was no different. He had stood tall behind an overworked AZKAL’s defense that was beginning to frustrate the Indonesians and quiet the crowd. But in the 34th minute it all changed as an innocuous curving center from the left eluded the outstretched hands of Etheridge by a matter of inches. Indonesia’s Christian Gonzalez headed the goal. In the dying stages of the game, an overhead shot from James Younghusband was cleared inches from the line by a desperate Indon defender; a matter of inches causing heartbreak twice for the AZKALS.

“AZKALS coach Simon McMenemy is correct. It’s not time to panic. The result is based over two games so it’s only half time. The AZKALS have to concentrate. First, is to get back on level terms with Indonesia by scoring first. It won’t matter at what time in the game. There are 90 minutes to do it. An early AZKAL goal would be ideal. The Indonesian’s will want a goal to calm their own nerves. The crowd will get frustrated the longer the AZKALS can hold the Indons out. A hostile home crowd can be an advantage for the AZKALS.

“I thought the AZKALS finished stronger than Indonesia with many of their players going down with cramps. There is only a three day turnaround so the Indons may have some aching muscles. One of the problems with the offense, especially as we were getting closer to full time, was the lack of peripheral vision of some players who tried to do it all. There were times when a switch of play, to stretch the Indon defense, or a through ball could have been a better option. But as they say the game is easy when you are in the sala watching it on TV. Tonight, we witness Philippine football history. Tune in to Start Sports at 7:55 p.m.

Rotary Cebu West + ALA boxers = a knockout night!

Call me biased. As president of the 48-year-old Rotary Club of Cebu West, I presided over a terrific evening of stars and laughter and Christmas celebration last Tuesday. Our guests? World-class boxers. Not one, two or six—but eight of Antonio Lopez Aldeguer’s best.

Donnie Nietes. Rocky Fuentes. AJ Banal. Jason Pagara. Boom-Boom Bautista. Milan Melindo. Z Gorres. Mark Melligen. All these famous men, all in one room, all sharing their stories – how Nietes started as a janitor before becoming world champ; Boom-Boom’s “secret” three months “abstinence” story, too juicy I can’t share with you here; Melligen’s black eye on Floyd Mayweather, Jr. during sparring; Z Gorres’ touching words and handshake.

Wow. I wish you were all there. The seating arrangement was like a press conference. Lined up on a perched long table with nine seats that included coach Edito Villamor, the boxers were peppered with questions. But, the best part, all queries were light, funny, relaxed. And so – unlike a formal pre-fight press-con where frowns are required – we had a dinner plate of jokes and cheers. Thank you, Michael Aldeguer. Thanks, Dennis Cañete and Chad Cañares. Thanks, most of all, to Tony Aldeguer.

AZKALS. Tonight is the night. It’s when our suddenly-famous Azkals football squad meet Indonesia in the semifinals of the AFF Suzuki Cup. This Game One is supposed to be played in Bacolod. But, unlucky us, nobody expected we’d reach the semis – thus, no ready venue. And so, the game will be broadcast from Jakarta… live at 7:55 p.m. over Star Sports.

Do we stand a chance? Yes. But consider the odds: We have lost 16 of 17 matches against the Indons. The good news, if any: the pressure will be on Indonesia. We have nothing to lose. We’re not even supposed to be there! Thus, Team PHL should have the mentality of a David vs. Goliath. They’re the giants of soccer; they’re supposed to win. But, who knows, with the slingshot of our feet, we might pull-off an upset. Game One is crucial. If the Indons win, they’ll be extra confident heading into Sunday’s Game Two. But, if we beat them — or, score a draw — that will be tremendous. Let’s watch tonight. Go, bark, bite, Azkals!

THE HEAT IS ON. Who said Miami and the Three Kings of LeBron, Dwayne and Bosh were burned? I did. So did millions of others. With an embarrassing 9-8 record two weeks ago, we thought there was no way Erik Spoelstra would survive his coaching stint; no way for the Heat to cook the NBA crown. We’re wrong. Thus far, Miami has won nine straight. What happened? It’s clear that — like most beginnings — this team had yet to gel. Now, they have synergy. In plain English, teamwork. In June, I’m hoping for this finale: Miami vs. L.A.

CEBU CITY MARATHON. The deadline for registration is on Dec. 22. That’s six days from now. If you have yet to enlist, do so now. You may log-in www.CebuMarathon.com, register online, or you can visit the Active Zone of Ayala Center and you’ll find the booth there. Apart from the 42.195-km. distance, there’s the half-marathon (21K) and the 5K Run. Over 4,000 participants have already registered–and so less than 500 New Balance shirts are left for you to grab. Hurry!

MEDAL. Designed by Meyrick “Jacs” Jacalan of ASAP Advertising, the CCM finishers medal — limited only to the 42K runners who cross that finish line — is dazzling. Mango-shaped to represent the fruit made famous in Sugbu, the medal has two mangoes interlocked. It’s yours if you’re willing to suffer – and celebrate — running those 42 kms.

TENNIS. The Thirsty Tennis Cup – open to all junior players — will be this Dec. 20 to 23. Three venues are ready: Cebu Country Club (for the Boys 18, 16 and 14), Casino Español (Girls 12, 14, 16 and 18) and Baseline (Boys 12 and Unisex 10). Registration is now on-going at Thirsty Fresh Fruit Juices and Shakes outlets in SM, Ayala and Robinsons with the fee, P350 (inclusive of shirt and Thirsty drinks). Deadline is this Saturday, Dec. 18. For more inquiries, call Sandy or Emma at 416-1122 local 100 or 112.

Georges St-Pierre and Emmanuel Pacquiao

Two boxing fights were aired simultaneously last Sunday. On SkyCable’s channels 12 and 33 were Amir Khan vs. Marcos Maidana and George St-Pierre against Josh Koscheck. The unanimous winner? Freddie Roach. He was in Khan’s corner in Las Vegas, Nevada; he was in St-Pierre’s mind in Montreal, Canada.

(Michelle Butalon, AFP)

It was a boxing lover’s Super Sunday. For with the No.1 pound-for-pound fighter in Mixed Martial Arts, he engaged not in MMA—but in boxing. He mimicked another P4P numero uno. GSP was MP. The two are friends. The two admire each other. The two are pupils of Coach Roach. The two are the very, very, very, very, very, very best. How many verys was that? It doesn’t matter because Manny and George are the quickest, most athletic—and very best—fighters of this era.

GSP, thanks to Roach, jabbed and punched his way to bleeding the eye of Koscheck. That’s called boxing. And, in the many times that I’ve followed UFC, I’ve never seen mixed-martial artists spend so much time on four legs. UFC is often about takedowns. Sure, they spring roundhouse kicks and throw uppercuts, but, most often, these bouts involve floor exercises called grappling and wrestling. Not GSP. Not last two days ago.

George St-Pierre and Manny Pacquiao? They are so alike that, starting today, I call them this: beauty parlor beauticians. Their job: they perform facial treatments.

With Antonio Margarito, he had to undergo surgery on his fractured orbital bone. His right eye was shut closed by Manny. With Josh Coscheck, it was the same: his orbital bone was broken. Which side? Of course, GSP pounded on the same side as MP—the right eye. Nagsabot si Manny and George.

As to the sport of MMA, it’s gaining immense popularity. If this were business-talk, it’s eating “market share” from boxing. For, in boxing, what would the sport be like today without Pacman? In three words: Not as popular. Remember the days of Sugar Ray Leonard, Duran and Hearns? Or of Mike Tyson? Muhammad Ali? Frazier, Holmes, Foreman? Boxing was glorified then—especially the heavyweights. Today, minus Pacquiao, the sport would be sluggish and stale.

Mixed Martial Arts? “MMA is boxing…plus more,” wrote Lee Andrew Henderson in “MMA vs Boxing,” a May 18, 2007 Yahoo! Article. “MMA took the great sport of boxing and added amateur wrestling, ninjitsu and kickboxing. Many people refer to boxing as ‘the sweet science’ because of the strategy needed in boxing. Well the MMA multiples the amount of science. Boxers have to know from match to match what type of boxer their opponent is. There are different types of boxers with different strengths and different weaknesses of course but there are even more challenges for an MMA fighter. Just like a boxer, an MMA fighter might be facing a guy with great stand up who can box. This fighter might be light on his feet or he might be a slugger; he might have a great chin or he might have a glass chin. But in addition to that he has to know, how is his takedown? Can he defend the takedown? Can he submit me? What kind of ninjitsu does he know? How are his kicks? Everything that is great about boxing is multiplied by MMA.”

Two more points I’d like to add. One, UFC appeals to the young. Maybe because of the added brutality and blood. Maybe because of the louder music and more in-your-face TV commentary. Maybe it’s the unusual shape of the octagon versus the square of boxing. UFC crowds are younger—and they wear less Armani suits. AFFLICTION! their shirts scream. Two, the undercards are better. In world title boxing fights today, do we even care about the undercards? For sure, Bob Arum doesn’t. There’s only one Main Event and all eyes are on those two gladiators. In UFC, no. Thiago Alves was superb. The 6-foot-11 Stefan Struve against 6-foot-7 Sean McCorkle—that was towering.

Finally, why do I say that MMA is more followed? Click on the Sports Illustrated website, SI.com. Scroll through the menu found at the top. What do you see? Two sports lumped together. But guess which one comes first? MMA & Boxing.

Azkals: No longer the stray dogs of football

If you’re a soccer aficionado, rejoice. In this game of kicking, we kicked a$$! Not since decades ago has our Philippines been as celebrated in international soccer. One game changed all that. Against the defending ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup champions, Vietnam—played on their home grass in Hanoi amidst 40,000 Vietnamese—we stunned the hosts. Nobody expected it. We won, 2-0. But we won much, much more: the lavish attention now spotlighted on PHL.

After three games at the Suzuki Cup, we were never defeated. In our first game against Singapore, the score was 1-all, thanks to the great Chris Greatwich, who scored during injury time. In Game 2, the upset win against Vietnam; and, last Wednesday, the zero-all draw against Myanmar.

“Honestly, it’s still kind of surreal,” said our team captain Ali Borromeo. “Nobody ever thought that we could beat Vietnam,” added Dan Palami, the team manager-turned-hero who hails from Tacloban. “We keep on dreaming and we keep on dreaming we can do it.”

Yes. This is what sport is all about. The ability to dream the insurmountable—and to make that vision of the unreal… real. Consider that our Philippine squad was the laughingstock of soccer. Would you believe that, just a few years back, we were ranked 189 out of 208 nations. We were in the top 10 percent… of the world’s worst football-playing countries.

Today, our FIFA world ranking should be nearing 140. Obviously, that’s nowhere near Manny Pacquiao’s No.1 rating in boxing, but it’s a major jump and promotion. We should feel proud. Ecstatic. Shout… Yahoo! Yet, we should also feel concerned. Our semi-final opponents, Indonesia, boasting a population of 238 million versus our 92, is a powerhouse. In three AFF Suzuki Cup games, they won all: a 5-1 thrashing of Malaysia, a 6-0 victory against Laos, and a 2-1 score against Thailand.

What’s worse in the upcoming Dec. 16 and 19 semifinal games between PHL and IND is that both will be played in Indonesia. It’s supposed to be one home-court game per nation (home-and-away format) but—given that none of our arenas meet the AFF standards—then it’s “sorry nalang.”

Our Philippine Football Federation (PFF) requested for the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod City—the venue of the 2005 SEA Games and the 2006 AFF Qualifying—to host our game. Sadly, this was turned down by the AFF, owing our minimal seating capacity, among other issues.

“This is a disaster,” said Phil Younghusband in an interview with The Inquirer. “We’re absolutely gutted. We have to play at home if we really want to promote the sport.” Added his older brother, James: “What’s the point of making the semifinals if we can’t play at home?” Coach Simon McMenemy said, “The players worked so hard and not playing at home is absolutely criminal.”

Both games will be played in Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta, a cavernous complex seating 88,000. It’s not only listed as the largest in Southeast Asia—it’s the 10th biggest football stadium in the world.

This “home-court disadvantage” is painful for two reasons. One, the boisterous Filipino crowd would have given the Azkals a huge lift. From Davis Cup tennis to the NBA to the Olympics, home-court advantage is important; the influence, tremendous.

Two, it’s a loss for Philippine football. Imagine the impact. Imagine the boost to football. I, for one, with sportswriters Nimrod, Mike, Noel, Max, Edri and Rico, plus hundreds of other Cebuanos would have driven to Bacolod. The positive bounce of such a significant event—wow, that’s immense.

But, let’s not dwell on what-could-have-beens. The game, as announced, will be in Indonesia. This means one thing: The odds are that, seven days from today, we go home defeated. Those are the statistics. But those same odds also said we’d never beat Vietnam. Maybe, just maybe, our squad, given the nothing-to-lose mentality and buoyed by the Vietnam upset… will win. Who knows? The football is round. If an azkal like Manny can do it for boxing, who says these Pinoys can’t?

Graeme, Max, Mike and Noel on ‘ASKALS’

After Donaire and Pacquiao, it’s football as our men’s team are the latest sports heroes. Want to know how our squad got its nickname, ASKALS?

Max Limpag, the ultra-marathon man who ran 50K the other Saturday, was a former soccer fanatic. Here’s his story…

“In July 2005, I got into a discussion with former FC Korsaaven (that’s the name of our college team in UP Diliman) football teammate Noel Villaflor and former Sun.Star Cebu sports reporter Glenn Michelina on the moniker for the Philippine football team.

“In an online forum on football, someone suggested calling them askals. We laughed at first but then thought it could be a good moniker. I said we were askals because we lack football pedigree. I think it was Noel who said it’s also a good play on Calle Azul because the Philippine team color is blue. We were also askals in a way because the team was abandoned by government and lacked needed support.

“Glenn Michelina then did a quick drawing of a logo of a fierce-looking dog with the country’s colors. Noel submitted it to the forum and I blogged about it in my site. I didn’t know the moniker would stick after all these years. But one that didn’t stick was “irbogs” for irong buang, which we proposed to call people like ourselves, rabid die-hard fans.”

The brother of Max—our sports editor, Mike Limpag—wrote an expanded version of the ASKALS story five years ago. “Fans want RP booters to be named ‘Askals,’” here’s Mike’s article…

“THE Netherlands has the Orangemen, France is Les Bleus, and Italy has the Azures. Philippine football fans want to call their national team Askals.

“The menacing street dog has just been elevated to national icon status after a few fans threw around an idea on what to call the national team in an Internet forum dedicated to Philippine football.

“Names like Tamaraws and Eagles came up first before the fans agreed on Askal, short for asong kalye or street dog.

“The idea started after national coach Aries Caslib appealed for more fan participation in the 23rd Southeast Asian Games (Seag), where the country will try to win its first medal in football.

“Caslib appealed for vocal support after seeing how the other countries supported their teams in last year’s Tiger Cup.

“One fan has come up with an Askal logo, and plans to have it reproduced on shirts and flags are being discussed by regular posters Graeme Mackinnon, Paul Weiler and others.

“Even coach Caslib is on with the idea: “I want to know if the design for the Askal is final because we might help in producing the shirts,” he told Sun.Star Cebu in an earlier interview.

“As to whether the national team will be as menacing as the street dog is left to be seen as they are still to test their readiness in a pre-Seag tournament in Vietnam before leaving for a month-long training in China.”

Thanks Max and Mike. More on the football hysteria, I sought the commentary of Graeme Mackinnon. Australian-born but—after 14 years here—Cebuano by heart, Graeme had this reaction:

“One win and the Philippines has woken up to football. Such is the impact of that historic win by the AZKALS 2-0 over highly-fancied Vietnam. We are still in the group stage and hopefully overnight the AZKALS have booked their place in the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup. There has been a tsunami-like groundswell of support for the AZKALS. The country is experiencing international football fever the likes of which we haven’t seen before. There are new AZKAL logos, musical anthems on YouTube and AZKAL tributes on Facebook. Facebook is in meltdown. There are just so many people talking about the team.

“AZKAL coach Simon McMenemy was criticized by Vietnam’s coach Henrique Calisto for his tactics. McMenemy’s tactics were correct. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of his team and set his tactics accordingly. His foundation for the win was the defense. If they don’t score then the AZKALS don’t lose. As the highly-favoured Vietnamese became more frustrated, the AZKAL counterattacks took advantage of the holes in the Vietnamese defense. Calisto had no answer to the AZKAL tactics and so his criticism smacks of sour grapes. So fire the bark up and be loud and proud of the Philippine AZKALS football team!”

MORE. Read the blog of Rick Olivares at bleachersbrew.blogspot.com.

Dr. Albert Santos runs New York, New York!

Of the hundreds of 42K footraces in the world—including the oldest annual (Boston, starting 1897), the highest (Everest Marathon, at 17,000 feet), the loudest (Country Music Marathon with 50 artists performing along 28 portions of the route), and the coldest (the North Pole Marathon, temperature: -25 C)—none compare to the biggest and most famous: New York City.

Last Nov. 7, a total of 44,704 runners finished the NYC Marathon. One of those was Dr. Albert Santos. Cebu’s top pulmonary wizard, Dr. Santos not only helps Cebuanos fix their lung-related illnesses, he himself relishes this sport that’s lung-busting.

Back in February 2008, Dr. Santos ran his first marathon race, flying to Hong Kong with 13 others from Cebu. Steady-paced with a relaxed motion throughout the 42.195 kms., he made the cutoff time by finishing in five hours, 26 minutes.

Running is an addiction. And—as perplexing and contradictory as it sounds—marathon-running is the most painful experience that you’d want to keep on repeating. It is hours of (temporal) pain transformed into years of (unforgettable) memories.

After Hong Kong, the Dr. Santos strode onwards, completing three more 42Ks. In Singapore, we were together with the Cebu Executive Runners Club (CERC) in December of 2008. Albert finished in 6:08. Next, Milo in Manila (5:55). Then, the impressive Amsterdam Marathon showing (5:03).

Finally, the “Wimbledon of Marathons” … New York, New York. Coming from Vancouver, Canada for a pulmonary conference and landing in the Big Apple two days before the marathon start, he had a scary beginning.

“I almost didn’t make it to Staten Island,” said Dr. Santos, of the starting point. “Nov. 7 was the first day to shift back to standard time from DST. I adjusted my watch one hour earlier but apparently the clock automatically adjusts itself. So when I arrived at the subway, it was empty! I got scared. The subway time was 8:10 and the ferry will leave at 8:15 a.m.

“But, God won’t be outdone. All of a sudden, after I asked a lady if she’s joining the race and she said ‘No,’ another lady from the back said, ‘I am’ (she’s a New Yorker). Whew! I reached the island together with a busload of others… the very last batch.”

Despite wearing a Garmin GPS watch, Dr. Santos opted not to monitor his pace during the run. “That was my mistake in Singapore,” he said. This time, he simply checked his watch to guide him when to take the energy gels.

“The crowd was the biggest plus factor of all,” he said, of New York’s two million spectators. “They were there after the bridge of the race, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. It was a never-ending cheering squad.”

When I asked for memorable moments, Albert said: “I don’t know what came to me but I decided to wear the pace time at the back of my shirt. Jane-Jane (Ong) gave it to me from the expo. My wife Mau advised the time “4:50.” So I wore the shirt.

“I totally forgot about it until runners were asking me whether I was the official pacer because I was running faster than my paced time. Even the pacer 4:20 was just ahead of me after the 2nd and 3rd wave of runners merged at Mile 8. Anyway, I decided to slow down, afraid that I might end up with the devastating cramps (like in Singapore). God is good! No cramps all throughout.”

Dr. Santos finished in a Personal Record (PR) time of 4:47:07. The others from Cebu? All speedy… Dan Climaco, 3:38; Andrew Ong, 3:59:08; Jane-Jane Ong, 4:12:31; Fr. Joy Danao, 4:29:15; and Nica Ong, 4:30:32.

How was this fifth 42K different? “The weather was colder, crowd was fantastic, race support very efficient,” he said. “I was better motivated because I wanted to give it my best for my wife Maureen and daughter Sam who were waiting at the finish line. Also, because running NYC is a chance of a lifetime.

“God is good! He put in order my schedule, profession, and family life so that I was able to prepare well for New York… ‘Where The World Meets To Run!’”