Azkals nearly bite the Tigers

Ricky Dakay’s birthday is this Friday. It should have been celebrated last Sunday with thousands serenading “Happy Birthday” as gratitude to the president of the Cebu Football Association.

Thanks to Engr. Dakay and his dynamic and relentless CFA team, Cebuanos were treated once more to international-caliber football.

The crowd gathered inside the Cebu City Sports Center was huge — though not as full-capacity as Face Off 1 when the Azkals played the Singapore Lions two Novembers ago. Still, the full stretch of the grandstand teemed with fans, screaming… HA-PIT NA! HA-PIT NA! This chant reverberated throughout the stadium. Chance after chance, near-goal after near-goal, our Pinoys fired and fired.


We scored! Almost. Kicks would sail just inches outside the rectangle — as if a magnet propelled it away. Shots boomeranged against the post. A perfect center strike by Nate Burkey skirted upwards by inches. HAPIT NA! was replayed like a tape recorder with a rewind button.

In the first half (45 minutes), the “Stray Dogs” dominated the Tigers. In ball possession, we must have controlled the offense 70 percent of the time. Sadly, there’s no score for “ball possession.” By half-time, the giant scoreboard across the field had zero movement; the numbers read, “0-0.”

Our Pinoy squad, wearing all blue including knee-high blue socks, commanded the field as if to say, “This is our home!” James Younghusband, wearing No. 7, stood ready at the right wing. He’d receive a pass, kick the ball up the middle, a teammate would shoot — but, no… no score!

During the lull moments when the ball exchanged feet at the center, the crowd went silent. But when the ball would gallop closer towards the enemy’s pit, an excitement not experienced in other sports — with 15,000 people yelling and standing together — enveloped the arena. Still, no good, no goal.

HAPIT NA! soon became “hapit na ma hu-man ang game” (almost finished). While we dictated the offense for the first 80 minutes, the last few moments of the game was chilling.

Malaysia, wearing yellow-and-black, grew desperate and, a couple of times, nearly shot the ball into the net. The most spine-chilling part: Just a few minutes before game’s end, just when CCSC was about to go quiet with a zero-all draw, a free kick ensued… for Malaysia! The audience was in disbelief. What? How did that happen? We can’t lose this way! After wasting so many chances?

But as yesterday’s headline proclaimed, “Deyto saves Azkals,” as our goalie Patrick Deyto jumped left to foil what could have been an agonizing ending. Moments later, the whistle was blown and it was another scoreless 90 minutes.

OBSERVATIONS. Upon my arrival, I saw Nimrod Quiñones, the CFA board member, giving strict instructions to the ushers. With Nimrod at the helm, crowd control was excellent.

The CCSC grass was as green as La Salle; as pristine as a golf course. The flood lights, as bright as noon.


The extended bleachers (constructed by Dakay Construction, I’m sure) were a big help. Those with front-row seats included Basti and Aina Lacson with their son.

I’m not as big a football fan as my SunStar pals Mike L. or Noel V. but here are some questions:

Why don’t players have their family names placed on the back? Given the 22 players on field, this would make it easier, especially to the casual fan, to find out who is who.

No timer? I’m not sure if this was unique to CCSC but a big digital clock would help us monitor the game clock.

No regular “voice over” messages unlike basketball. I guess this is the norm for soccer. But wouldn’t it be nice to hear a semi blow-by-blow account from Jiggy Jr.?

Giant-size TV. I know this is asking too much but this is often the “problem” with live games. (This isn’t limited to soccer.) We’re so used to watching replays and slow-motion action that they’ve become a TV habit. In many live sporting events, we don’t have this. How we wish, at times, to see that replay!

Categorized as Azkals

Azkals in Cebu: What a kick-start

Wasn’t Thursday night perfect? After the afternoon skies darkened and the clouds unleashed their wet venom, weren’t we all begging our Lord, Oh no, please don’t let it rain! It did not. Instead, the sky’s ceiling was pitch-dark, perfect for down below, the green pitch…

The green pitch was outstanding. Talk about surprises. Talk about transforming a dusty field into a golf course that’s called a soccer field. Wow. Everybody applauded the grass. Michael Weiss. The Singaporeans. And us, the spectators, numbering 7,000 eyeballs, all gazing and awestruck at the green field.

The venue, the Cebu City Sports Center? This is our own Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. It’s our Ground Zero. Our sports headquarters. You know what’s amazing? Coupled with the majestic green pitch was the majestic maroon-colored rubberized oval. Again, exemplary timing: the oval gets renovated just months before 11-15-2012.

The lights? Were those lights? Or was that the sun beaming its rays on CCSC? I counted dozens, hundreds, of floodlights that flooded the arena. This is what happens when the president of the Cebu Football Association (CFA) is one of this island’s mightiest of construction magnates: the stadium is bright as noon.

Thanks to Ricky Dakay, the engineer (or “Doctor,” since he’s earned a Doctorate in Engineering in the U.S.) who owns Dakay Construction and Development Corp.

What else? Fireworks, like sparkling Christmas lights, colored the starless, black sky. The Kaholeros — more than 300-strong and standing across the stadium-full of spectators — lost all their voices by Friday morning. They screamed and danced and were gifted by the Azkals team a personal visit at game’s end.

THE GAME? Was it perfect? The 1-0 final score, no doubt, was splendid.

But the first half? Ha-ha. Don’t call me “Amalayer” when I say this: The Azkals were lousy. Were these our national players? They get hold of the ball… then lose it in 10 seconds. The Lions held the ball 70 percent of the time. It was a mismatch. Singapore would make zigzag, pinpoint passes; we’d scramble and turnover the football. “The first half was one of the least spectacular performances we’ve seen under my guidance… We’re lucky we’re not punished,” said coach Weiss.

True. In those first 45 minutes, we could easily have gone down, 0-2. Or, 0-3. They had chances after chances, especially that free kick. Thankfully, we ended the half at 0-all.

The 2nd half? What a difference. With the Younghusbands, the Azkals were a different animal. In the first half they were puppies; in the second half, they became rabid, hungry, thirsty, salivating “azkals.” They were dogs. And how the dogs would run around and defeat — in the animal kingdom — the bigger and stronger lions.

We held ball possession. We defended. We attempted on multiple occasions. We were aggressive. We were in command.

The hero? Of course: Ed Sacapaño of Bacolod, the goalie who stopped the spinning ball from hitting our net. Thanks to the man from the City of Smiles, we smiled.

CEBU. Last Thursday night was a moment-changer. The new CCSC plus the upcoming USC Talamban field (picturesque, by the mountains) will convert Sugbu into a national powerhouse football venue.

Sure, Manila is our nation’s capital — but most athletes prefer Cebu because, very often, our spectators are noisier, more rabid. We bark. We are azkals-like fans. We’re the azkals watching the azkals. Dan Palami, the country’s Mr. Football himself, couldn’t be happier with Cebu.

Mayor Michael Lopez Rama, while the game was ongoing in the early minutes, was not watching. Instead, he and Ricky Dakay toured the CCSC grounds — pointing at areas to improve. In my conversation with the mayor last Friday night, he repeatedly called the event, “superb.”

This is teamwork. It’s the private and public sectors passing the ball to one another, like James and Phil, to achieve a common goal.

The goal? To goal. To Dan Palami, the new CFA, and the rest of the tireless volunteers and organizers: What a kick-start you’ve given Cebu football.

The Azkals arrive!

Paolo Pascual is excited. The goalkeeper of the Azkals — and a true-blooded Cebuano — calls this week a “dream come true.”

When I spoke to Paolo yesterday morning, he was in Cebu. But he wasn’t at home with his parents, doctors Joel and Chona Pascual. “We’re in Parklane Hotel where the team is staying,” he said. “Although I’m home, I have to stay with the team.”

The “team,” of course, is the most popular team that has invaded the minds and hearts of all sports lovers: the Philippine Azkals.

This week in football has never happened to Cebu before. It started with the opening of the 15th Aboitiz Cup last Sunday. That same day, a group of about 30 athletes and coaches arrived via PAL around 1:30 P.M.

Paolo Pascual is the lone home-grown Cebuano. He mentions that two others — Patrick Alcala Reichelt (who’s mom is from Alcoy) and Ray Anthony Pepito Jonsson — are also “Cebuanos.” But, since he’s the full-blooded Bisaya, everybody is asking Paolo the same question, “Where do we go?” Show me Cebu! all his teammates insist.

Upon arrival last Sunday, the team was whisked to the Aboitiz Cup opening. “Although it was rainy and muddy,” said Paolo, “we had a wonderful time. So many people, especially children, came.”

That night, they were treated to dinner by the president of the Cebu Football Association, Ricky Dakay, at The Distillery in Crossroads. Stanley Villacin was with the group.

But if we think that this trip is for sightseeing or party-going, that’s not the case. “We train at the Ateneo-Sacred Heart field. Our focus before the game is lots of training,” said Paolo.

CCSC. “It’s the best football field we’ve had at the Cebu City Sports Center,” said Ricky Ballesteros, the facility’s chieftain. Months of preparation — plus the assistance of the “grass experts” from Alta Vista and Cebu Country Club — have elevated the stadium. “We’re also lucky that the rains have been pouring,” said Ricky. “This time, the grass has really taken root. Ni gamut gyud. Green na kaayo ang field.”

Ricky expects over 7,000 spectators to flood the CCSC on Thursday. His advice? Come early. “We’re open starting 3 P.M. Also, please don’t bring your own vehicles. Ask to be dropped-off or take a taxi. This will help decongest the traffic and parking.” Although Citom will allow one-car parking on both sides of Osmeña Blvd., it’s best to lessen the number of parked cars. Or, parking at E-mall or nearby establishments is another alternative.

GRAEME. On the beauty of grass field, I got this mesage from Cebu Sports Hall of Famer Graeme Mackinnon, who’s joining us here this week:

“My lasting recollection of Cebu City Sports Center was that it sat firmly in the too hard basket. No one wanted to do anything to upgrade it. It was a dangerous dust bowl and needed political will to renovate and maintain it. Or did it?

“Maybe it needed the phenom that is the AZKALS and the promise of international football to spark Cebu from its lethargy. Led by the vision of Ricky Dakay, the CFA has transformed the dust bowl into an oasis. But is this transformation just a mirage? The complex has now been upgraded and handed to the current administration on a silver platter.

“With what I saw on Monday night, I was blown away with pride at the transformation. I hope the transformation will not be blown away due to a lack of vision. The game with Singapore will be fiesta-like and something Cebuanos will be proud of. But please don’t make it a one-off and put the CCSC back in the too hard basket.”

AYALA CENTER. I also received an e-mail from Ayala Center Cebu’s marketing executive Wilma Entera on the meet-and-greet. Said Wilma:

“PUMA brings the Azkals to Ayala Center. For those who can buy at least P1,500 worth of PUMA items, they will be given a poster that the Azkals members can sign (with a photo-op) at 1PM at the Activity Center. The following will be there: Eduard Sacapaño, Roel Gener, Jason Sabio, Nestorio Margarse, Chieffy Caligdong, Ian Araneta, Joshua Beloya, Chris Greatwich and one of the Younghusbands.”

The Azkals are good — and looking good

Girls dream of convincing James and Phil to be their young husbands. The Fil-Brit brothers are rockstar-famous. They’re celebrities in today’s hottest entertainment called football. My wife Jasmin calls them “hot.” Quinito Henson has a new term for the PHL squad: “The Beatles.” Mobbed by Ilonggas, their shirts pulled, their hands wearied with autograph-signing, their photos plastered on pink bedroom walls, the female population is obsessed.

This craze began when the Azkals shockingly beat Vietnam, tied with Singapore, and reached the semifinals of the AFF (Suzuki) Cup last December. It reached a climax last Wednesday night when the fireworks erupted at the Panaad Stadium in Bacolod.

These footballers are good. But more than good, they’re good-looking. And this is what fuels their popularity. In the same way that all movie stars except Pokwang are pretty, we assume the same with our athletic heroes: we adore them because of their incredible prowess on the sports arena.

And, even better, if they’re beautiful, we worship them. Consider Anna Kournikova. She is more famous than 97.5 percent of the world’s female athletes–not because she’s won 38 events (she has zero singles titles)–but because of her Russian beauty and curvaceous Jessica Alba-like body.

Michael Jordan is the same. The reason why he topped the No. 1 ranking as the all-time greatest is not solely because of his acrobatics wearing the Chicago Bulls jersey, it’s because he’s the complete package. He’s got the tools, the Nike goods, the look.

David Beckham, in People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive 2010,” is right there alongside Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. Sure, the former England captain is adroit and dexterous. His feet are good. But his face—as millions will agree–is even better looking.

Which brings me back to Neil Etheridge, Alex Borromeo, Simon Greatwich, Jason de Jong, James and Phil and the other Azkals. These guys are good, no doubt. Did you see the in-between-the-legs goal stung by Chieffy Caligdong? That was like Manny Pacquiao’s left hook on Ricky Hatton. Or how about, just seconds before the final whistle by the referee to end the game at 1-0, a curving shot by Phil Younghusband that penetrated the goal line and erupted a nationwide scream which reverberated from Davao to Mandaue to Barotac Nuevo?

Football, beginning this 2011, will reach heights to rival basketball and boxing. The reason? Football is grass-roots. If you study closely the elementary and high school students–in Cebu’s private schools, for example—the most-played sport is not basketball–it’s soccer. It’s what five-year-olds dribble. The game of the foot, not hand. Parents of Springdale and Sacred Heart-Ateneo and Bright Academy and Don Bosco and USC and many more are soccer moms and dads. The Azkals give these youngsters their Super Heroes. Which brings me to the “celebrity” discussion. These Azkals boys have an opportunity to be much more famous than their PBA 6-footer counterparts. They have a chance to achieve movie star-like prominence.

How? One example: The “tweet” sent by Phil Younghusband to Angel Locsin. In a Twitter message delivered the day after the Azkals win over Mongolia, he said: “Hi Angel! This Phil. How are you? I was just wondering if you are free for Valentines day?”

This public announcement during this love month rippled throughout the showbiz world—in particular, to the millions of non-sports Pinoy fans. This was juicy. Kilig. A top story for Boy Abunda. Then, not long after, Angel responded with her own Twitter message: “hi! this is angel? Congrats on your win last night! Tnx for the invite but I have work on valentines.. Let’s try another day?”

My point? These non-sports acts are perfect for sports. By fueling tsismis, by creating gossip, Phil—off the field—has excited our nation.

Good. Good PR. Good-looking. Good for football.