Villaflor: ‘Back on its feet, back to its senses’-A A +A
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
THE last time Kuwait and the Philippines met, the entire Azkals p.r. machinery was screaming “We Believe.”
It was a rallying cry for fans to support the Philippine Men’s National Team’s quest to qualify for the World Cup 2014.
That dream, as the world knows by now, is dead, along with that ridiculous slogan.
I was critical of the slogan at the onset for one reason: it placed too high expectations among fans, especially the new converts. It was made to sound that qualifying for the World Cup was a walk in a kickabout park.
When the qualifier was decided in the first leg with a 3-0 loss in the Middle East, the fans were still made to believe that a 4-0 win against the Al-Azraq was possible.
Wrong move. When the dust settled at the Rizal Memorial Stadium and the score line
read 1-2 (1-5 on aggregate), the “We Believe” slogan backfired.
Droves of new and old converts became skeptics overnight. A series of “scandals” involving Azkals players didn’t help. The crabs were having a field day.
To woo the fans back, no catchphrase would be enough. To restore belief in the Azkals, management had to do it the old-fashioned way: getting results on the pitch.
More than a year after that World Cup debacle, the fans expectations have been tempered and there is little fanfare. We see a changed Azkal team, one that has its feet on the ground, but one that means business.
Obviously, lessons have been learned.
Even after winning its first title in ages – although against subpar opposition and on home soil – management was quick to clarify that the real challenge waiting for them in November is of another level.
Azkals coach Michael Weiss himself harbors no “illusions” about what the Peace Cup win meant.
But here’s the reassuring thing: beneath that subdued message is a team brimming with self-confidence, not the hubris of old. In such a short period, the team has not only matured in many ways, it has improved its game significantly.
This “more improved” Azkals team first manifested itself not during the Peace Cup or
against its “surprising” draw with Bahrain, but during the Challenge Cup early this year, where it made a good account of itself against much higher ranked teams, including Asian powerhouse North Korea, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The Azkals placed third. In a tough field of grizzled squads, third place is no mean feat. And that could mean only one thing: Coach Michael Weiss and Manager Dan Palami were doing something right.
In a competitive sense, the third place in the Challenge Cup was a bigger achievement
than the semifinal appearance in the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2010. (In terms of historical significance, the Suzuki Cup saga was the turning points of turning points for Philippine football, let’s make that clear.)
The Challenge Cup performance was the reason I was convinced that it is no longer a question of whether the Azkals could win the AFF Suzuki Cup 2012, but rather will they actually lift the trophy.
I wrote about the “Azkals v3.0” months ago explaining why this version of the team has what it takes to be champions. This conviction was further strengthened by the Azkals solid performances in friendlies against Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, and just last Sunday against Bahrain.
For the Azkals to dominate the Al-Ahmar in a scoreless draw in foreign soil speaks volumes about how Weiss has molded a credible squad. We used to cringe at the thought of friendlies abroad, but all that has changed.
As for tonight’s game between the Azkals and World Cup tormentors Kuwait, fans would do themselves a favor if they treat it not as a grudge match (which it’s not).
But here’s a thought: that “We Believe” team of long ago wasn’t going up against the Al-Azraq, it was tilting at windmills.
Be glad that team has been knocked back to its senses.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on October 16, 2012.